Image credit: Liz (perspicatious.org), used under Creative Commons license.
The British government has already faced court action over fuel poverty and the number of poor and elderly dying for lack of warm home. With much of the public debate around green housing now focusing on whether or not new homes will be zero carbon, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the issue was fixed. But it is not. In fact, more Brits die per capita each year from the cold than Siberians and, if George Monbiot is to be believed, it's the government and the utility companies that are to blame.
In a piece entitled "The cold claims lives while energy companies get rich", Monbiot does not pull his punches regarding who sis responsible for the increasing number of households who find themselves in fuel poverty. (Fuel poverty is officially defined as the point where you have to spend over 10% of your income on keeping your home at a reasonable temperature.)
According to Monbiot, the problem is not just a lack of government attention to the issue—in fact over £25bn (US$40bn) has been thrown at the issue since 2000. It's just that the spending is largely unfocused and unfair. From the winter fuel payment, which is essentially a seasonal boost to pensions that can be spent as the recipient chooses, to a poorly administered program to insulate and weatherize low-income homes, there seems to be little coordination and planning to really bring the numbers of fuel poor down. This problem is only exacerbated by a lack of regulation of the energy markets—each time global energy prices rise our bills get higher, each time they fall, the bills stay the same.
To really make a dent in the figures, argues Monbiot, it's time to make social justice an integral part of the environmental agenda. And while the climate skeptic crowd may jump up and down at the final glaring evidence that all greens are socialist here, it's worth noting that Monbiot is also taking a well-aimed stab at one of their much-talked about 'socialist conspiracies' here, namely emissions trading:
"The price rises are exacerbated by policies that penalise the poor. People who use pre-payment meters to buy gas and electricity (often the poorest) are stung for an extra £120 a year. Those who consume the most energy (generally the rich) are subsidised by everyone else: they pay a lower tariff beyond a certain level of use. It ought to be the other way round: the first units you consume should be the cheapest. Before the election both the Tories and the Lib Dems demanded an inquiry into competition in the energy market. They're not demanding it any more.
There should be a perfect synergy between climate change and social justice policies. As the Commons energy and climate change committee points out, "improving the energy efficiency of homes is the most effective way of tackling fuel poverty". But the government's green policies are unfair and regressive: everyone pays at an equal rate for reducing energy emissions, yet those who need the most help to green their homes and reduce their costs don't get it. Policies such as the European emissions trading system, the carbon emissions reduction target and the feed-in tariff are, according to the government's climate change committee, likely to throw another 1.7 million people into fuel poverty by 2022. This is an outrage."
Monbiot has never hidden his leftist leanings—which is probably what makes him such a controversial figure this side of the Atlantic—but say what you like about the man, he's willing to lay into some sacred cows of the green movement too. (He has previously branded solar feed-in tariffs as a fuel subsidy for the wealthy.) On this issue in particular, it seems hard to disagree with the diagnosis. Unless environmentalists take into account the needs of the poor, and ensure that the burden of environmental policies falls on those who pollute the most, then we will have failed.
People dying of cold in a wealthy, industrialized nation simply because they can't afford to heat their homes is ridiculous. If we can bail out banks, we can sure as heck insulate some homes. At the very least, we can make sure that green policies do not exacerbate an already dire situation. The poor pollute the least—why should they pay for the excesses of others?
More on Fuel Poverty, Social Justice and Green Housing
Is Environmentalism Socialist?
Fuel Poverty in the UK: Government Faces Court Action
Are Solar Feed-in Tariffs a Rip Off?