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Trump/Thunberg spat should focus minds on climate policy

by Dr Jamie Stewart, CAS Head of Fair Markets policy

This opinion column first appeared in the Herald newspaper on 25 January 2020.

One of the stories making headlines last week was the unlikely showdown at Davos between Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg. If there was ever any doubt that climate change was firmly on the global policy agenda, the clash between the US president and the teenage climate campaigner will have surely eradicated them.

The international effort to combat climate change will feel closer to home later this year, when the United Nations Climate Change conference, COP26, arrives in Glasgow. An event that will put Scotland centre stage on a generation-defining challenge. 

And why not? Scotland should, in theory, be in a position to lead the world on this issue. Both the Scottish and UK governments have committed to targets to reduce emissions, albeit at different rates.

However new fuel poverty statistics released this week revealed the scale of the challenge we face when it comes to reaching net zero emissions. 

The Scottish House Conditions Survey (SHCS) showed over 600,000 homes in fuel poverty . This is when a household is spending more than 10 percent of their income after housing costs on fuel bills. What’s more, 1 in 10 of our households spent more than 20 percent.

At Citizens Advice Scotland we back net zero, but believe it is now time to move beyond warm words to a clear plan of action that protects those consumers who are on the lowest incomes.  

After all, one of the biggest challenges in meeting Scotland’s new climate targets will be reducing emissions from our homes. While the path for doing this remains uncertain, it will likely require that many of us change the way we heat our homes and the way we use energy.

But to achieve this, policymakers need to understand the realities of how people live day-to-day and the reasons why they consume energy as they do. Particularly those on low incomes. 

Citizens Advice Bureaux see this up close, with people coming through our doors every day who are deep in debt to their energy supplier or are having to choose between heating their home or putting food on the table. To such a family, meeting Scotland’s climate change targets are frankly not top of their priority list.   

It’s true that changing their energy behaviour could help some people reduce their fuel bills, but it’s not that simple. Many of them are caught in a trap of low incomes, cold, draughty properties, and expensive heat sources.

Electric-only heating for example, which is becoming lower and lower in carbon emissions, is four times as expensive per unit as gas heating, and the SHCS this week revealed that fuel poverty rose by 5% between 2017 – 18 among those who use electric-only heating. This group tends to include the poorest people in our communities, and because many of them are renting their homes they are not in a position to change their heating source – even if they could afford to. 

Similarly new low-carbon technologies, like heat pumps, could help reduce the costs of heating a home with electricity, but these are currently expensive to install and they would not be appropriate for all households.

So while in an ideal world emissions and fuel poverty should reduce hand in hand, the reality is that we need to be bold and creative in making this actually happen.  

For example we believe that significantly increasing energy bills for those already struggling to pay, in order to fund emission reductions in other areas, would be unacceptable. 

That’s why as a first step we are calling on the Scottish Government to double spending on energy efficiency in the upcoming Scottish Budget.  

There are three principle reasons for this - it’ll help reduce emissions from homes, it’ll make homes easier to heat and see bills fall for some, and it will lay the foundations for the big changes we need to see to reduce emissions from domestic heating.

In the meantime, we will do our bit by continuing to ensure that consumers have the advice and the support they need to cut their emissions and their bills.  

Our Big Energy Saving Week campaign, co-designed with communities across Scotland, targets four at-risk consumer groups: people in electric-only heating, those in hard-to-heat homes, those in fuel debt and those unable to access online tariffs and support.

Having given advice to fuel poverty households for years, these were the four groups we identify as facing significant challenges in the energy market, and they will continue to need support during a transition to a zero carbon emissions economy. All across Scotland this week, Citizens Advice Bureaux have been reaching out in their local communities to ensure people are getting advice and support on energy. And that support will of course continue throughout the year. 

The imagery of Davos on our televisions screens at night may seem like a different world, but in fact we all share the same one. We need to ensure policy makers keep their decisions rooted in what’s best for our communities.

Jamie Stewart is head of the Fair Markets policy team at Citizens Advice Scotland