At first glance, the government’s much-delayed bid to break Britain’s decades-long addiction to gas heating is well timed, as the nation braces itself for a winter energy crisis.
Within months, the gas supply crunch is expected to plunge hundreds of thousands of homes into fuel poverty for the first time, lead to scores of energy suppliers going bust, bring factories to a standstill, and rip through the economy as the UK attempts to mount a post-pandemic recovery. As one energy industry leader put it last month: “There really is no part of the current energy crisis which would not be better if we were less reliant on fossil fuels.”
So it comes as welcome news that as soon as this week, ministers may unveil plans for a scheme that will pay households to scrap their gas boilers in favour of a low-carbon alternative, as part of its long-awaited “heat and buildings” climate strategy.
The scheme, which reports suggest could offer £5,000 to households ready to shrug off their fossil fuel dependency, may prove to be a tempting prospect for homes currently facing one of the steepest increases in energy bills on record this winter because of record gas market highs across the globe.
It is certainly an attractive opportunity for government ministers in the weeks leading up to the Cop26 climate talks, after a string of deeply unhelpful climate policy blunders that threaten to undermine the UK’s credibility as host.
Alongside plans to develop hydrogen as a fossil-fuel alternative for heavy industry and transport, the latest strategy would reduce the UK’s overall demand for gas, which in turn would mean future market prices for it would be unlikely to reach recent highs, and would have a more limited effect on the economy even if they did.
But make no mistake: for the winter ahead, the die is cast. Scrapping gas boilers may help prevent a repeat of this winter’s looming energy crunch in the medium to long term, but will be cold comfort for cash-strapped households or the beleaguered energy companies struggling to stay afloat as they supply the eye-wateringly expensive gas and electricity in the months ahead.
For the near term, the government will, apparently, be relying on dumb luck. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told energy companies last week they should welcome early suggestions from the Met Office that the coming winter may be a mild one. He later denied that the government’s plan was to cross its fingers, but the comment nonetheless underlines its wilfully obtuse approach to the crisis.
A mild winter would undoubtedly help, but only in preventing a further escalation of energy market prices. It would do little to lower the prevailing market price for gas, which is more than six times higher than this time last year.
Kwarteng has also insisted that homes are safe from the worst of the energy cost rise thanks to the government’s energy price cap, and that the economy will continue to have secure supplies of gas and electricity. These claims are true – but only if you ignore the issue of affordability, which is a luxury denied to most in the country.
There may be a cap in place to protect households against profiteering, and enough gas molecules entering the pipelines to meet demand, but if you cannot afford to pay your bills, the gas is as good as absent. The government’s move to safeguard the country’s energy future is commendable, if belated. But ignoring the pressing concerns of this unfolding crisis is complacency at its worst.
One of the few arguments for Brexit that was compelling for progressives was that the lowest-paid could benefit; that too many British workers had seen wages undercut for the benefit of employers. That is the notion the prime minister has grasped at in recent weeks, as the HGV driver shortage emptied shelves and saw fuel stations run dry. Boris Johnson, disdaining serious engagement with the crises he has presided over, pontificated that pay rises for drivers would be a good thing.
Now, though, the government’s decision to relax the cabotage rules for foreign hauliers suggests this show of principle was barely worth a festive pig in a blanket. Hot on the heels of extending legal driving hours, loosening up test requirements, and offering temporary visas, the government has turned to cabotage – allowing foreign firms to take on additional deliveries abroad.
These rules were already a minor defeat in the transition agreement: Britain had conceded that its haulage firms would be permitted only one extra job abroad, compared with two for EU trucks delivering to the UK. Now big European hauliers can send their drivers to do unlimited extra deliveries within two weeks.
Haulage associations, here and in Europe, are clear who will benefit: multinationals who lobbied for the change, and already tie up cheap labour from the eastern fringes of the EU to do jobs in the west, on the lowest legal wages and in poor conditions.
Here again, Brexit has not levelled the playing field: it has in fact hampered the ability of UK firms to compete, and loaded them with red tape. And now ministers are opening the game up to those playing with different rules. As a knee-jerk reaction to the driver shortage, it is unedifying; if it persists, it suggests that Brexit was not hard but porous – and entirely self-defeating.
The climate agenda is focused on electric cars and renewable energy these days, but what about the food we eat? The global production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases emitted by human activity, with animals reared for meat causing twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods.
In the UK, sales of meat and dairy substitutes are booming as consumers tuck into vegan burgers that bleed and no-chicken nuggets. The latest trend is faux fish, with KitKat-maker Nestlé adding Vrimp – essentially a no-prawn prawn – to a store cupboard that already includes Vuna (a substitute for tuna) as well as alt-meat.
At this month’s launch, Mark Schneider, Nestlé’s chief executive, said the company had hit “peak carbon” several years ago and was now on the way down. The biggest challenge ahead in reducing the environmental harm it caused, he said, was the greenhouse gas emissions of the agricultural commodities, including beef and dairy, that go into its products, generating two-thirds of the total.
It is estimated that a group of about 10 food companies and retailers, including Nestlé, has a fundamental influence over about 40% of the agricultural land in Europe. A shift toward selling more plant-based food can only be good news.
With their wacky-sounding names and sometimes wacky ingredients, alt-meat and dairy products can be written off as “Frankenfoods” – indeed, there are ultra-processed and calorie-laden examples – but it is also an area full of startups working hard to create palatable alternatives to your favourite meat or fish dish.
As Schneider puts it: “If everyone out there rebalanced their diet a little bit – enjoy your steak when it is really important to you but opt for the plant-based alternative when it does just as well – then if I think we’re already doing our health and the environment a huge favour.”