Osborne puts energy company profits before saving lives and the climate

By Bridget Robertson

Rising energy bills mean that a quarter of the population of Britain now has to spend more than 10 per cent of their income on energy, at the same time as energy company profits have increased by 77 per cent in one year alone.

This has meant thousands of households are being forced to choose between heating and eating as the Tory assault on living standards takes its toll. However, for the vulnerable the consequences are even more serious. Last winter 31 000 people died prematurely, with around a third of those deaths attributable to living in a cold home.

These deaths are entirely avoidable – by improving the quality of Britain’s homes through insulation measures energy bills could be reduced by £310 for the average household. Britain’s housing stock is among the worst in Europe for leaking heat – contributing to increased carbon emissions in wasted fuel as well as increasing costs, and accounting for why Britain has more excess winter deaths than Sweden despite the milder climate. A nationwide programme of investment in energy efficiency to end fuel poverty could also create 130 000 jobs.

However, rather than embark on such a programme, the Tories have sided with the energy companies and caved in to their demands to cut the ‘Energy Company Obligation’ – a scheme that forces energy companies to provide insulation measures to their customers. Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, is the 28th largest company on the London Stock Exchange with a market capitalisation of approximately £17.5 billion. It has long used this weight to exert a disproportionate influence on energy policy in Britain. The company blamed the scheme for their recent bill rises, and called on the Government to scale it back. EDF engaged in what can only be described as blackmail, threatening to raise prices further if Government did not cut the scheme.

The cuts announced in Osborne’s Autumn Statement mean that the Energy Companies will have to provide 120,000 fewer solid wall insulations (insulation for older Victorian properties) between now and 2015. The money that would have been saved from those measures will instead continue to line energy company coffers as people are forced to waste money heating the air outside their house.

The sham claim that so called ‘green levies’ are responsible for rises in bills is an attempt by the energy companies and their friends in Government to protect their key interests – selling very profitable fossil fuels. The Government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, found that bills have increased an average of £520 in the last eight years – and the majority of this is attributable to the rising price of gas, which is expected to continue to rise over the coming decade. The rising price of gas means dirty energy is not only storing up climate problems for the future, but is costing lives in Britain today.

Along side energy efficiency measures, a switch to renewable energy sources is needed to secure affordable energy in the long term as well as to combat climate change. However, in another blow to clean energy it was revealed this week in the Infrastructure Pipeline that expected investment in offshore wind between now to 2020 has decreased by £18 billion. This is a consequence of the Government scaling back their ambition for offshore wind from 16 gigawatts by 2020 to 10 gigawatts and blocking demands for a target to move to carbon-free power by 2030. This follows the announcement last week that the Atlantic Array offshore wind farm has been cancelled, a scheme that would have provided thousands of jobs and power for the equivalent of 900 000 homes.

However George Osborne did find time to help out his friends in the fracking industry – of whom his father in law is one – by announcing a reduction in the rate of tax on early production profits from 62 per cent to 30 per cent. Not only will this do nothing to cut energy bills, is it not compatible with tackling climate change. Fracking is more polluting than conventional gas. The International Energy Agency has found that a boom in shale gas would be likely to lead to a 3.5 degrees temperature rise, well above the 1.5-2 degrees widely acknowledged as the tipping point for dangerous climate change.

Yestoday’s Autumn Statement shows that the Conservatives continue to prioritise the profits of the Big Six energy and fossil fuel companies over the majority of the population. The Liberal Democrats, who hold the position of Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, continue to capitulate to this agenda. Labour have opposed cuts to the Energy Company Obligation – with Ed Balls suggesting today that it should be paid for from energy company profits rather than consumer bills. However, the Labour party have not yet committed to the national energy efficiency programme that is required to keep bills down, which would require significant investment.

All those concerned with living standards should push for investment into energy efficiency and clean energy to end the scandal of winter deaths, cold homes, and ensure Britain plays its part in preventing dangerous climate change.