• Ben Whitaker

It's too darn hot

Updated: Apr 23

It must be said, that I am really beginning to worry, about the climate crisis, emergency, or whatever you want to call it. A lot. The announcement last week that the government is to scrap its insulation support for 600,000 houses is part of the catalyst. This month Scientists for Labour published some suggestions to the Labour Party leadership group on our (SfL) response to the government’s putative “green agenda”, which is seen by some as capturing the public zeitgeist. However, the emperor has no clothes! Let’s take the 600,000 home insulation grants, now cancelled. They were needed, in part, because of the government’s paper promising a “new green industrial revolution” as a route out of the economic devastation induced by the COVID-19 pandemic (and, although not mentioned, Brexit) and to bolster the U.K.’s posturing on the world stage before the COP26 meeting later in the year. The “plan” posits that by 2030 (note that nothing is ever planned to be delivered in this parliament) the U.K. will install 600,000 heat pumps (basically air-conditioning units running in reverse) into the national housing stock. These are needed to reduce the U.K.’s dependence on natural gas to heat our houses. This is a very good idea but it cannot work in old draughty houses – hence the need for insulation grants. Heat pumps are also considerably more expensive than gas boilers, at current prices by about an order of magnitude, and, although with mass production the unit price should be expected to fall, heat pump technology is still unlikely to be affordable for many.

Installing good insulation to a standard that would make heat pumps a feasible alternative to gas fired boilers is really only realistic in new homes. The government, rather hopefully, plans 300,000 new builds a year (although to date they have barely achieved half this number in the last ten years). So, to achieve the planning aims, at least 300,000 houses a year would need to have reverse engineered insulation, and the government have just scrapped its support! How on earth does this address the challenge that faces us all?

There is, of course, an alternative plan. By 2030 (again!) the “plan” promises to deliver 5 GW of hydrogen energy. Now hydrogen is a fuel “vector” not an energy source. This means it costs energy to produce it. The government paper is, unsurprisingly, obscure as to how its target is to be met (although 40 GW of off-shore wind power is mooted, only 160 M£ of government funding needed to support the expected 31 billion (G) £ investment is promised). This is balderdash! And we need to be clear about it.

The party has to be straight with the people. The climate catastrophe makes the challenges of COVID-19 look like organising an Oxbridge summer ball in the face of a Game of Thrones Winter. This is going to be extremely hard on all of us, and we cannot duck the issue lest we end up really living in the dystopia of Blade Runner 2049.

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