The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
Reducing demand for foreign energy will help avoid future conflicts
Let me get this out the way first—this is not another article about how energy efficiency in our buildings is a good thing. While I could talk about the benefits of tackling the climate emergency, lowering poverty and bringing down extortionate bills, I am going to assume you have heard all this before. What is new is the added dimension that the gas crisis and now the appalling war in Ukraine, adds to the humble but powerful world of retrofitting our leaky buildings.
The obvious solution to breaking the hold of the gas crisis is reducing our reliance on gas, especially from Russia. Only 35% of the UK’s gas is used for electricity generation. Another 40% is piped directly into homes. When roughly half of our gas is through imports, and with declining gas production at home, even if we decarbonised the power sector totally tomorrow morning, we will still be reliant on imports.
If the UK reduced gas demand, fellow European gas producing countries such as Norway could divert supplies to countries far more reliant on Russian gas, such as Germany and Italy. So, by deliberating and not acting on all sectors of the economy that are heavy gas users, the UK is actively preventing Europe from weaning itself off dangerous Russian gas and other ruthless autocracies. Drawn up this way, we can see a complex spider’s web of gas reliance across our continent and the world.
If the UK truly wants to help reduce the world’s reliance on a dictator’s gas profits, rather than just its own reliance—not to mention climate change and fuel poverty—it must go further. Energy efficiency coupled with low carbon heating systems has been a route industry, political figures, campaigners and lawmakers (myself included) have advocated increasingly vocally for decades now.
There are challenges around implementation, political will, cost, the pace of change and plenty more besides. But with the prospect of planetary collapse and the most vulnerable in our country putting their health on the line, what could possibly be more persuasive to the national narrative for a shift to warm homes and clean heating? Well, there is one possibility—national security.
There is something about the immediacy of a national security debate that focuses minds. Psychologically, the direct link between using less gas and weakening the Russian war effort has fewer steps as a policy, than reducing gas demand as part of a package of policies across multiple different sectors as part of an international effort over several decades to keep global temperatures within acceptable levels.
While very different types of policies, the speed of the UK’s delayed sanctions feels like lightning next to the more methodical nature of UK climate policy.
On costs, while private finance desperately needs more room to fund those truly able to pay for the upgrade, subsidy schemes for vulnerable households will still be needed. Given the billions that have been funnelled into UK war efforts in previous years, the costs required for ending a key plank of the Russian war effort seem small in this context. This makes it a much more attractive prospect politically than finding new public spending for a new energy efficiency scheme.
Part of the appeal of energy efficiency as a national security argument too is its fundamentalism. Many conflicts, both currently and throughout history, have an element of a clash over resources. Imagine the war on terror without oil or how much less tension there would be in the South China Sea if not so much imported fossil fuels were flowing through it. It does not automatically solve the conflict, but by surgically removing the resource at the heart of it, it lifts a critical anchor to the underlying tension.
Ultimately, a fundamental shift in the approach to energy efficiency and decarbonising our homes will not happen overnight. But maybe if national security enters the national narrative on how we go about it, it will add another arrow to our arsenal in tackling all these issues. •
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