Our rising cost of living is the price of climate inaction, not net zero

Melanie Smallman
© OgnjenO/Shutterstock.com

With households across the UK facing a cost of living crisis as energy and food prices escalate, many on the right of the Conservative Party are trying to argue that the current cost of living crisis is caused by commitments to tackle climate change. It is a line some may swallow, but the current cost of living crisis is not the price of climate action – it is the price of ten years of government climate inaction.

We have known for decades that oil prices were increasingly volatile, and that continuing our addiction to fossil fuels was accepting that our future economy would sail on stormy seas. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine leading to the further rocketing of oil prices, this volatility is brought into even sharper focus. Instead of steering us to the calmer waters of a low-carbon economy, or insulating our homes, the Tory government has left us stranded.

Once again, it is the ordinary households across the UK that are left feeling the escalating costs and growing insecurity that comes with this failure to act. Back in 2008, SERA carried out research among low-income families in east London. We found that many households were regularly going without food in order to send money to their relatives in countries like Bangladesh who had seen their homes washed away in the increasingly frequent floods associated with a changing climate. 

Since 2018, over 4,000 heat-related deaths have been recorded in England, as episodes of extreme heat become more frequent. With more frequent and more significant flooding, 5.2 million homes and properties in England are currently at risk. Ordinary families here in the UK face escalating insurance costs and growing insecurity as their homes and livelihoods are made precarious by the extreme weather events that come with climate change – adding to the burden of huge energy bills further.

The really frustrating part? It could have been so different. We could have insulated homes and helped them generate their own energy. Yet the Tory-led coalition government scrapped Labour’s zero carbon requirement on new builds, so we now have a million more new homes that are energy inefficient and need to be insulated. In September 2021, the National Audit Office blamed the government for scuppering the opportunity to help households to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, reduce carbon emissions and create tens of thousands of jobs, through the way they handled the ‘Green Homes Grant’ scheme. They first set it up with so much bureaucracy that homeowners and businesses struggled to apply, then, within a few months, cut the funding available, before scrapping it altogether a few months later still, leaving the UK with no national energy efficiency scheme.

In 2019, the government dropped the feed-in-tariff scheme that supported small-scale renewables, reducing what could have been a huge acceleration of take-up. At the same time, the government has signed up to a disastrous strike price of £92.50/mwh for new nuclear (the current crisis is about energy bills that have spiked at £100/mwh), which locks us into permanently high energy bills. A “no bills home” is within reach – but not while we have a Conservative government. 

What can be done to avert this cost of living and climate catastrophe? In the first instance, Labour’s proposal for a one-off windfall tax on the profits of energy companies would fund its package to reduce the expected energy price rise in April – saving most households around £200 or more. And while those who have been less than enthusiastic about renewables until now are suddenly upset about the effect that this will have on investment in low-carbon technologies, most energy market experts agree that this will have little effect on investment in renewables, which is already at a disgracefully low level anyway. Indeed, there is widespread agreement that if anything is holding back private sector investment in a low-carbon future, it is this government’s failure to provide the clear market signals necessary to unleash that investment. 

Labour has also proposed to spend an extra £3.5bn on the warm home discount, increasing it from £140 to £400, and to expand the number of those eligible to 9.3 million households. Rachel Reeves has pledged work, too, to prevent price hikes by accelerating homegrown renewables and new nuclear. 

In the medium term, we need to do so much more to insulate families from the insecure and fluctuating oil market. We need significantly more investment in renewables – at the large and small scale – so that energy prices are kept within affordable limits. And we need to rethink models of ownership of our energy infrastructure – embracing Labour’s cooperative heritage to ensure that more people have stakes in and share the profits of future energy markets, empowering communities to drive forwards the upgrade and investment in low-carbon technologies so desperately needed. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that there are many impacts of global warming that are now irreversible, and that there is now only a brief window to avoid the very worst. The clock has ticked; the government has not acted. Inaction leaves us with just eight of the 12 years experts have said were left to stop the kind of change that would see ten million people affected by sea-level rises, and the mass migration and potential conflict that would result in.

The same government inaction has also left so many millions of households facing the terrible choice between heating and eating this winter. If we want to tackle escalating energy bills now and in the long-term, this is the time to double down on our climate ambitions, because tackling the climate crisis is the best way to tackle the cost of living crisis – and secure our energy supply for the future.

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