What would you do with the money if you saved £1,100 on your energy bill? That question led me on a journey that completely changed the way I approached climate change policy.
In 2007 I confronted this question when I helped to update the monitoring at BedZED, the UK’s first large scale zero carbon housing development.
The people living there were a fairly ordinary mix of Londoners – social tenants, key workers, home owners – and few were dedicated environmentalists. It’s an experiment in nudging ordinary people towards low carbon lifestyles.
We found that their energy bills were slashed by energy efficiency measures, some of which you may be able to spot in my photo below. At today’s prices, the average BedZED resident was saving over £1,100 per year compared to the average resident in the local area, Sutton, in south west London.
This is meant to be a great thing. Insulate your home and save money! You’ll often read that the purse or wallet is the best way to motivate environmentally friendly change.
So what did those BedZED residents do with the extra money? We didn’t ask, so couldn’t be sure. But I strongly suspect it was connected to the fact that a lot of them went on more holidays. The average BedZED resident flew more than three times as much as the average Sutton resident. Even the lower income social housing tenants flew more than the Sutton average. The carbon emissions from their flights cancelled out many of the carbon reductions from energy efficient homes, lower car usage and lower waste.
As a result, the average resident’s carbon footprint was only 12% lower than the local average, compared to a 46% reduction for a theoretical keen resident who made low carbon lifestyle choices, such as resisting the foreign holiday temptation.
This problem is one example of the rebound effect. If you save people money in the process of reducing their carbon emissions, they will spend that money somewhere else, usually on something causing more carbon emissions.
Tackling climate change can seem so straightforward. Insulate homes, stick up solar panels, switch to electric cars and hey presto! Climate change averted.
But the rebound effect shows that it really isn’t easy at all. It raises all sorts of other interesting questions, such as what exactly people can spend their disposable income on without the huge environmental impacts, and whether we can persuade people to value those things, or whether we all need to be poorer.
By 2010 I was working for the Greens at London’s City Hall, scrutinising – among other things – the Mayor’s home insulation programme. It was based on a successful model pioneered by the Greens in Kirklees, and was supposed to get over one million homes insulated by 2015.
But as I talked to council officers who were delivering it, I heard of austerity cuts and a lack of political will fatally undermining the programme. Some told me of eye-watering costs for certain buildings, paying for insurance, scaffolding and other costs that weren’t a big feature in Kirklees but kept cropping up in London’s complex housing stock. Home visits to promote free insulation measures yielded a miserably low follow-through – most people decline.
In later years the Government introduced the Green Deal, a policy my wife and several ex-colleagues had helped to pilot and develop in its early days under the last Labour government. Again, a model we hoped would insulate the ‘hard to treat’ homes fell apart when it was implemented by a government and councils that lacked the political will. Worse, even when the deal for home owners was sweetened, few showed much enthusiasm. The thought of clearing out the loft is enough to put many people off tackling climate change, even if it saves them money and makes their home much warmer!
So the idea that we can simply insulate every home in Britain with some cash and a good policy is a fantasy. I came to the conclusion that it will only happen if we force people.
I have worked on climate change for the past 12 years. When at BedZED I learned the conventional technocratic approach to climate change policy – quantifying the impacts of different policies, going for the low hanging fruit or big hitters, and ensuring everything adds up in a balanced carbon budget. But in those 12 years I’ve seen how this tends to let politicians, including some Greens, off the hook. They construct rational strategies with carbon budgets that add up, and assume that it’s therefore all in hand so they can get back to the important stuff.
They even say: we can take a decision which will increase emissions because theoretically if we do x, y and z to further reduce emissions it would all fit within the carbon budget, and that decision has big social or economic benefits.
This is the argument for building a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick airport. They address the environmental concerns, so they can focus on jobs and growth. The Climate Change Committee thinks a 60% growth in flights is possible if significant advances in technology are realised, deeper cuts are achieved from homes and workplaces, and a politically toxic carbon tax is implemented to control demand (it would likely mean an extra £100 to fly to Ibiza or £580 to Shanghai).
On their own, these are heroic assumptions. Once you consider, also, that we are failing to implement existing policies to their full effect, and that those policies don’t factor in the rebound effect, the conclusion that we can safely expand airports looks flawed. When you consider the devastating economic, social and environmental damage that will result from runaway climate change, the conclusion looks reckless.
I realise I no longer approach climate change in the rational, technocratic way I learned at BedZED. I now think about the likelihood of a policy being politically acceptable, the chances of fully implementing it, and the potential rebound effects. I think about the potential for policies that might – according to carbon accounting – seem small in impact, but which might unlock political space for much more significant changes. I think about red lines that we need to draw, such as blocking airport expansion and fracking, not because it’s inconceivable that they could be part of a theoretical carbon budget, but because that budget is politically unrealistic or problematic.
But it’s difficult to then persuade people of those apparently small impact policies, those red lines, because I only arrived at this way of thinking after an unexpected journey, starting with the monitoring work at BedZED and encompassing years of work, books, discussions and activism.
In my work, trying to build political alliances for Green policies, I have to blend radicalism with pragmatism. There are those who deny climate change is even a problem; they’re a waste of my time. Most accept the consensus view but are principally interested in other issues – in tackling inequality, racism or government red tape – and so seek reassurance that strategies and policies are in place to deal with it, so they can concentrate on their interests. Those are typically the people persuaded that we can expand airports, build big new roads, frack the countryside, ‘so long as environmental issues are taken into account’.
The political challenge for Greens is therefore to discomfort those people, to find ways to persuade them that it isn’t so straightforward and that they must accept some apparently odd choices: that fossil fuels must stay in the ground even if we put up solar panels, and we cannot build roads and airports that might increase greenhouse gas emissions.