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Getting off Gas: Why Putin’s appalling invasion of Ukraine should spur us to save energy
(03/03/22)
Blue grunge background with word Gas written on it in big white letters

Andrew Pendleton

by Andrew Pendleton, Deputy CEO and Director of Strategy and Advocacy

@AJPendleton

5 minute read

 

 

Global Action Plan’s new Deputy CEO and Director of Strategy and Advocacy, Andrew Pendleton reflects on how this fossil-fuel funded war should spur us to decarbonise our energy and revolutionise how we insulate our homes. 

 

The end of the fossil fuel age is upon us. The extent to which our climate is already changing and is set to change is outstripping some of the worst predictions. This alone means that we must bring an end to the burning of coal, oil and gas faster than ever. But now, with the unfolding crisis in Ukraine likely to push gas prices even higher and possibly destabilise supplies, we have a further reason to make a more rapid transition.  

 

As well as waking us up to the Russian President’s dangerous worldview and shocking disregard for humanity, his invasion of Ukraine should spur us to think again about how we are decarbonising energy in the UK. Because not only has a reliance on Russian fossil energy helped keep Putin in power, every litre and cubic metre Europe buys is helping to fund his brutal military campaigns, with revenues often exceeding $500 million per day.  

 

Though only around 4% of the gas we burn in our boilers and power stations in the UK comes from Russia, because gas prices are set globally, what’s happening in Ukraine is likely to push our energy bills up even higher. And already many households – especially those on the lowest incomes – are facing increases in excess of £700 this year. In effect, when we burn gas to heat our homes, we are linking ourselves to a global market in energy that is not only threatening the future of the planet, but – especially as prices rise – gifts further windfall profits to Putin.  

 

Some argue this should spur us to produce more of our own gas, but aside from the fact that this is incompatible with our ambition to go net zero in the UK, it’s unlikely to make a difference to the price we pay for our energy, and that’s even if we can overcome the earthquakes that every UK frack has so far caused and strong community opposition.

 

So what can we do in the UK, as gas prices continue to rise and drive inflation particularly if the crisis in Ukraine takes a long time to resolve? 

 

The decarbonisation of electric power supply in the UK is a big and growing success story, with offshore wind and increasing amounts of solar power largely driving coal out of the supply chain. More and more of the electricity we use in our homes is clean and fossil free. This is not a reason for complacency, because for all that, burning gas is still the single largest means of generating electricity in the UK.  

 

But the UK is nothing short of a complete failure when it comes to reducing our energy use at home. This is not just because we have some of the oldest and leakiest homes in Europe, but also because we’ve had a woeful policy for the past decade when it comes to upgrading insulation and swapping gas boilers for heat pumps.  

 

Before Putin ordered the Russian army into Ukraine, the UK government had announced some extra support for UK homes to help people meet rising energy costs. But not only is this extra help inadequate, especially for poorer households, it leaves us still very exposed to global gas price increases. And yet we still have no comprehensive government programme to ensure all homes can meet the upfront costs of insulation and renewable heating. And the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) brought in by the coalition government in 2013, the only policy we do have, has led to an 83% drop in the number of homes getting insulated each year compared to the policy it replaced. It has also paid for new gas boilers rather than low carbon, gas free heat pumps.  

 

Back in 1973, when the oil producing countries in OPEC suddenly cut back production and oil prices spiked, the crisis triggered a round of innovation in renewable power and energy saving. This included some of the first solar panels and wind turbines, and the introduction of a raft of energy saving measures, including lower speed limits and regulations for industry.  

 

This winter, households inevitably need help to meet the costs of rising bills – though this should be targeted at the poorest households – but like 1973, we need a revolution in energy saving to cut the amount of gas we use dramatically. Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor, has increased the funding available to the ECO so the pot is now worth £1 billion, but it’s estimated that to retrofit 7 million homes with insulation and low carbon heating and keep us on track to meet net zero, will cost £11.7 billion within this Parliament (to 2025).  

 

If that sounds like a lot of money, then look upon it as a national investment which should be paid for by a combination of long-term government borrowing and out of the pandemic savings of better off households. This will not only help many stay out of fuel poverty, but it will also free us from future reliance on the whims of Putin’s energy policy and stop us further funding his war.  

 

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