Fuel poverty and climate justice: where are we?

Ian Preston laments the lack of an integrated policy

11 March 2013

In the second of two responses by CSE staff to the launch of the report Distribution of carbon emissions in the UK: implications for domestic energy policy, Ian Preston asks why we seem unable to shield the fuel poor from the impacts of policies to cut carbon emissions.

"At first glance reducing emissions and tackling fuel poverty should be a perfect policy fit; surely it’s like killing two birds with one stone?

"So far the Government has failed to develop an integrated set of policies to deliver both of these objectives. Arguably since the end of Warm Front earlier this year, the Government has virtually no fuel poverty policy at all with the exception of the Warm Homes Discount which only targets a sub-section of the elderly, and the Affordable Warmth aspect of the ECO. The latter representing an overall decrease in spending from the previous year.

Why is it hard?

"There are two factors at play. Firstly, many fuel poor households are cold as a result of under-heating their homes and as such we want to make them warmer. Secondly, under the existing 10% definition, high fuel price rises will always lead to increases in fuel poverty.

"The first issue should not act as a rationale for inaction. These households are already suffering from the triple injustice of climate change mitigation policy. In other words, these households pay more and benefit less from policies while also being responsible for the least emissions. In many respects their experienced fuel poverty represents their unwanted contribution to our climate change targets.

"The second issue is more contentious. The recent Hills Review of fuel poverty criticised the existing definition’s sensitivity to changes in fuel prices. The review argues that the current headcount of ~6.5 million in the UK doesn’t reflect the real experience. However, equally contentious is the proposed definition that’s entirely insensitive to fuel prices.

So where are we at?

"Current policies offering households energy efficiency measures are typically delivered by energy suppliers as a result of an obligation placed on them by Government. They typically feature a social obligation requiring a certain proportion be delivered in the homes of ‘vulnerable’ householders i.e. those in receipt of certain means-tested benefits. Using energy suppliers to deliver energy policy becomes an issue, particularly for the fuel poor, if low income households are unable to access measures from these policies and are themselves unduly burdened by the costs of their delivery.

"There are two potential solutions to this conflict. Firstly, policies should be funded more equitably with the costs either being collected from those that benefit directly i.e. via a Green Deal charge, or collected at a higher rate from those that emit the most, i.e. wealthier householders. Secondly, they should be better targeted to provide strategic support to vulnerable householders at highest risk. For example, providing district heating to low income households who use electricity to heat their homes, as these households pay a disproportionate amount towards the costs of climate change policies.

What next?

"The Government is set to redefine fuel poverty. If the Government ignores many of the new definition's critiques and accepts the proposed Hills definition then the headcount will become fixed at around 2.3 million. This should not be a rationale for inaction; it’s our collective responsibility to make sure that regardless of the definition, low-income households facing the triple injustice of UK energy policy are provided with support that meets their needs and the needs of the energy system."

See also, 'Call this fair?', Simon Roberts, on the 'triple injustice'.

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