Hardly a revolution

The government’s long-awaited response to rocketing household energy bills focused more on improving home energy efficiency than cash hand-outs to those who will be hardest hit (see p 13  ).

That was the right choice. Subsidising the consumption of fossil fuels is just about the most anti-environmental action any government can take. Far better to help people cut their consumption of electricity and gas at a time when the news on climate change is ever grimmer (see pp 6   and 12  ) whilst concerns about security of energy supplies keep growing.

Yet the £1 billion (over three years) package Gordon Brown announced on 11 September amounts to a fairly modest extension of existing measures and programmes.

The government says it all adds up to a "national revolution in energy efficiency… the widest programme of energy improvement to British homes since the conversion to North Sea Gas in the 1960s". Such overblown claims serve only to show how much further and faster the UK has to go to decarbonise our heat-leaking housing.

You could readily spend at least £10,000 on every home significantly improving its energy conservation, installing its own renewable energy sources or financing local heat and power systems which are fundamentally greener than North Sea gas and centrally generated electricity. That adds up to more than £200 billion across the entire housing stock.

Now that would constitute a real revolution. This is a transformation the UK needs to make if it is to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% over the next 40 years. Some of our readers have been thinking and debating about this for decades. But in terms of the policies needed to get there, government has barely begun.

The reference to the 1960s North Sea Gas revolution is apt. With hindsight, that is where we took a wrong turn, going down a road which fundamentally separated heat and power. Every home went on to get its own little gas boiler for heat, while electricity came from vast, centralised generators which wasted most of the heat from the fuel they burnt.

That legacy is cultural as well as physical. If we are to decarbonise our homes are going to have to share and trade heat and power; each one will have to become less of its own little energy island.

There is far to go. September’s astonishing and alarming economic news would suggest the journey will be further delayed. And yet, as we went to press amid the turmoil, the carbon markets had not collapsed. Perhaps there is hope.