More Brits die from cold than do Siberians

Are utility companies and the government to blame?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The British government has already faced court action over fuel poverty and the number of poor and elderly dying for lack of warm home. With much of the public debate around green housing now focusing on whether or not new homes will be zero carbon, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the issue was fixed. But it is not. In fact, more Brits die per capita each year from the cold than do Siberians apparently and it would appear that the utility companies that are to blame.

Fuel poverty, by the way, is officially defined as the point where you have to spend over 10% of your income on keeping your home at a reasonable temperature.

The problem appears not just to be a lack of government attention to the issue – in fact over £25bn (US$40bn) has been thrown at the issue since 2000 – but the also the fact that the spending is largely unfocused and unfair. From the winter fuel payment, which is essentially a seasonal boost to pensions that can be spent as the recipient chooses, to a poorly administered program to insulate and weatherize low-income homes, there seems to be little coordination and planning to really bring the numbers of fuel poor down. This problem is only exacerbated by a lack of regulation of the energy markets – each time global energy prices rise the energy bills go higher, each time they fall, the bills stay the same.

The other problem is that the winter fuel payments go to each and every pensioner, even those that have enough money to pay themselves for the fuel and many even say so.

To really make a dent in the figures it is time to make social justice an integral part of the environmental agenda, but, personally, I doubt that the government(s) has/have the willpower to do so.

The price rises are exacerbated by policies that penalize the poor. People who use pre-payment meters to buy gas and electricity, and those are predominately the poorest in our society, are stung for an extra £120 a year. Those who consume the most energy, which turn out to be generally the rich, are subsidized by everyone else: they pay a lower tariff beyond a certain level of use. It ought to be the other way round: the first units you consume should be the cheapest.

Before the election both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, who are now in coalition in government together, demanded an inquiry into competition in the energy market. They are no longer demanding it now. One can but wonder why... and I leave the reader to wonder and to ponder this.

There should be a perfect union between climate change and social justice policies. However, this is not the case, neither in Britain nor elsewhere. As the Commons energy and climate change committee said that improving the energy efficiency of homes is the most effective way of tackling fuel poverty.

The government's green policies, however, are unfair and regressive: everyone pays at an equal rate for reducing energy emissions, yet those who need the most help to green their homes and reduce their costs do not get it. Policies such as the European emissions trading system, the carbon emissions reduction target and the feed-in tariff are, according to the government's climate change committee, likely to throw another 1.7 million people into fuel poverty by 2022. How can this be? This is an outrage.

The fact is that poor people are being penalized for not having insulated homes and “wasting” energy without anyone considering that they actually cannot afford to do it. In addition to that the majority of those in “fuel poverty” and the poor in general also do live in rented accommodation where they, themselves, have no control over the insulation of the home. They also could not afford to pay for it, regardless.

Unless environmentalists take into account the needs of the poor, and ensure that the burden of environmental policies falls on those who pollute the most, then we will have failed.

People dying of cold in a wealthy, industrialized nation simply because they cannot afford to heat their homes is ridiculous and it is a confession of failure, an Armutszeugnis, as it is called in the German language.

If we can bail out banks to the tune of billions and billions, we can surely insulate the homes of the poor that cannot do it themselves. It is just so sad to see that we have still not changed in our attitude and still treat the poor no better than dirt.

The poor pollute the least, so why should they pay for the excesses of others?

© 2011