Home truths

Britain claims to lead the world in tackling climate change. But in reality, the UK's attempts reduce carbon dependency are feeble. With energy costs so cheap, the answer may be in all our hands, writes Chris Goodall.

A raft of schemes has failed to cut UK greenhouse-gas emissions over the last decade. Carbon dioxide (CO2) output has risen by 4% since 1997, or over 8% if emissions from international travel are included. Independent forecasts of energy use continue to see substantial rises.

The National Grid, which is responsible for operating the UK’s main electricity and gas supply networks, is preparing for a 5% growth in electricity use over the next six years; it also predicts gas consumption will increase by over twice as much.

Government ministers and company bosses are not lying when they claim to have introduced measures to arrest the growth in energy use. By and large, these people really do mean what they say. Most chief executives, trained to recognise long-term trends, openly acknowledge that climate change is a huge threat and have taken limited measures to cut emissions. Government departments, weak and disorganised though they often seem, are throwing money at hundreds of research programmes, grant schemes and marketing campaigns to help us all reduce energy use.

But it simply isn't working, and there is one principal reason: fossil fuel energy is extraordinarily cheap, both in historical terms and when measured against average salaries. Consider the tumble dryer. A full load of clothes, swiftly extracted from the washing machine and pushed firmly into the dryer, can be painlessly dried in a couple of hours or less. To take that tangled mess of dripping underwear, shirts and tea towels and pin it on a washing line might take 15 minutes. Drying “by hand” would take several hours, possibly a day, and bringing the clothes indoors and folding them could easily take another 20 minutes. Moreover, rain could fall or the activities of birds could spoil your clean sheets.

However, the cost of the electricity to power the dryer will be around 25 pence (US$0.50), and the labour saved may be half an hour or more. As a result, the rational person who values his or her own time has little choice. Homo economicus slams the door of the dryer shut, feeling only a little guilty that another kilogram of CO2 has been added to the communal atmosphere.

The financial incentive to restrain household energy consumption is small. Take lighting as an example. The average UK home uses around 750 kilowatt hours each year, costing around £65 (US$128), or the price of a family evening out. Does it make sense to buy energy efficient bulbs? The average house has about 25 light fittings and many middle class homes have twice that number. These fittings come in all different sizes and shapes, and to replace your old fashioned incandescent bulbs with low energy equivalents is time-consuming and expensive. Moreover, you might not even find a direct replacement; there are over 100 different types of bulb sold in the UK, and even Tesco, a major supermarket chain, only sells nine energy-efficient equivalents. You may up spending around £100 (US$197) in order to save about £45 (US$89) a year in lower electricity bills. To most people, it is simply not worth the effort.

What about the surreptitious dash to the supermarket in the car? You may know you should cycle, but there is something good on TV and the three-mile round trip probably costs about 40 pence (US$0.89) in petrol, or less if you have got an efficient new diesel car. It saves you 20 minutes on a bike and although the parking is a bit difficult, you get back before the TV programme started. You spend £15 (US$30) on groceries, and the petrol cost is scarcely noticeable.

The cost of gas for central heating is higher than it was a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, little by little, we are increasing the internal temperatures of our houses. A decade ago, we thought 18 degrees centigrade was warm, now the typical thermostat is set at 20 or more. The extra cost of this comforting warmth in winter is less than £100 ($US197), but the change added a tonne of CO2 a year.

What about turning the computer off? Leaving it on overnight probably adds about 16pence (US$0.31) to your employer's electricity costs. It might take five minutes to turn on again, and to open the programmes you need. What sort of employer values someone as able as you at 16 pence for five minutes? After all, even the UK minimum wage pays three times as much for this length of time. It may even be financially irresponsible to use the off switch before going home.

At the other end of the spectrum, think about the humble soft-drink can. Today, it will almost certainly be made from aluminium, a metal that needs enormous amounts of energy to make. One small can of cola contains some flavoured water and a kilowatt hour of energy. Recycling this can saves most of this energy. Does this make it worth collecting and re-processing? Make your own mind up – the price paid by aluminium recyclers in the UK is 45 pence (US$0.89) for 60 cans.

As growth has made people richer, energy has got cheaper and cheaper in relative terms. For people with a decent income and multiple demands on their attention it is increasingly sensible to use electricity to save effort, or petrol to avoid wasting time. We will not get to grips with climate change until we recognise this.

Governments persist with policies that stand no chance of combating the insidious addiction to energy that is – to all intents and purposes – free. In the host of schemes that the UK government has introduced, there is no recognition of the underlying problem that energy is too cheap for people to want to ration its use. Frightened by the possible electoral reaction to any attempt to increase fuel and power prices, the UK government has substituted poorly funded programmes and exhortatory press releases for real action.

Homepage photo by chrispercival

Chris Goodall is the author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.