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We need to talk urgently about Net Zero

by Alastair Wilcox, senior policy officer (Energy).

This column was first published in the Herald on 21 November 2021.

Last week those of us who work to end fuel poverty lost a friend in the most shocking of circumstances. Sir David Amess MP, whose death on Friday has brought tributes from across the political spectrum, was a powerful advocate on behalf of those for whom the cost of staying warm in their homes has become an unaffordable luxury.

Earlier this year, for example, he spoke passionately in support of proposals to extend the Warm Home Discount scheme – the UK Government’s flagship fuel poverty policy since 2011 – and recalled the case of a constituent who had died as a consequence of living in a cold, damp home. However, he will possibly be best remembered for his Private Member’s Bill to eliminate fuel poverty, which received Royal Assent in 2000 as the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act.

It is perhaps therefore fitting that, in the week after Sir David’s death and just days before COP26 begins in Glasgow, the UK Government has published its long-awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy. Complementing the Scottish Government’s own Heat in Buildings Strategy, itself published less than a fortnight ago, this important and overdue document should provide some much-needed direction as to how the UK will reach Net Zero by its target date of 2050.

Scotland, of course, has its own obligations to meet Net Zero by 2045, and while polling suggests that the public is becoming increasingly aware of this target, what it actually means for us as consumers remains much less well understood.

To pick just one example, how many of us know that our homes currently contribute about a fifth of Scotland’s total CO2 emissions? Or that if we’re to have any chance of reaching our Net Zero commitments, emissions from our homes and buildings need to fall to just 5% of their 1990 levels? Progress on this over the last 30 years has been so slow that a significant upgrade to much of our housing stock is now required, with substantial investment needed to improve the energy efficiency of our homes.

Policymakers at both Holyrood and Westminster are also realising that the humble gas boiler is likely to be a significant barrier to our ability to meet our climate change targets. Cue the outraged headlines about the government ‘ripping out’ gas boilers, when nothing of the sort is planned. The beginning of the end of our love affair with burning fossil gas in our homes and buildings is definitely here, however, and this does raise some perfectly valid questions. For one thing, switching to fossil gas central heating has for years been seen as a route out of fuel poverty for the many households who use more expensive heating fuels, like electricity or oil. So, if that route is to be closed off, what is the help for such people going to look like?

Before COVID-19, 24.6% households in Scotland were officially in fuel poverty. Put another way, that’s 1 in every 4 households who couldn’t afford to heat their home to an adequate standard. Given this shocking statistic you might think that charities like Citizens Advice Scotland might oppose proposals from both UK and Scottish Governments to effectively phase out the most cost effective form of heating. After all, we’re consumer advocates, not climate change activists, right?

Well, at CAS our policy work is always evidence-led, and in this case the evidence says that – far from being contradictory aims – protecting people from fuel poverty goes hand in hand with promoting better energy efficiency and the adoption of low carbon heating in our homes. It’s a fairly simple equation: better efficiency means less energy is needed to warm your home, which means both lower bills and lower emissions.

The case for action is therefore compelling. You can achieve both objectives with one set of policies. And while we recognise that the costs involved in upgrading our homes will be significant, the cost of doing nothing is even greater. So, our focus is on how those costs are met, both in terms of their distribution among today’s consumers and across different generations of consumers in the future.

Studies have shown that the quickest and most cost-effective route to Net Zero is achieved via what’s called a Just Transition. For us, this means many things: ensuring that adequate financial support is available to those who can’t afford to upgrade their homes; protecting consumers from sub-standard workmanship and mis-selling; and of course, working to make sure that energy becomes more affordable for everyone. All of these things are fundamental. We need to make sure that no-one is left behind by the changes that lie ahead – not least in the context of the unfolding energy crisis – and while there is a huge amount of work on this already underway, there is much that still needs resolved.

But a Just Transition is not just inclusive by design; at its heart sits a need to empower individuals and communities to enable them to meaningfully participate in decisions that will affect every facet of their lives. And alongside this sits a need to make sure support and guidance is freely available for all who need it.

On this latter point, there is not enough focus at present. However, it is every bit as important as finding the funding required to make government policy ambitions a reality. So once all the diplomats have departed and the sun has set on COP26, my one big request to all levels of government would be this: let’s see a proper, sustained attempt at public engagement to simplify the myriad and complex issues that the threat of climate change brings. Let’s talk about Net Zero.