Ministers threaten to drop green energy pledge

Conservatives think hard times have turned the public against meeting Britain’s commitment to increase renewable energy. So is it fair to add green subsidies to household electricity bills?

The two sides of Britain’s coalition government are lining up for a prolonged argument about how and whether the UK should remain committed to reducing the country’s reliance on sources of energy that produce greenhouse gases.

When they took power, David Cameron and Nick Clegg promised to lead ‘the greenest government ever’. But three years later, their environmental strategy has been blown off course. Why? Because an eye-catching proposal by the opposition Labour leader to freeze household energy bills if elected has focused public attention on what is being called ‘the cost of living crisis’.

The government rejects the energy price freeze idea. But the policy is popular, with more voters naming high energy prices as a threat to the economic recovery than any other potential danger. Over 80% of people also believe the energy companies exploit their customers.

As a result, the prime minister is under pressure from MPs in his own party to cancel the subsidies for investment in renewable energy, some of which push up the cost of ordinary household bills. Under international agreements, the UK is supposed to produce 15% of its energy from environmentally friendly technologies like wind and wave power by 2020. If it reaches this target, the country will be producing less of the greenhouse gases that are released by burning carbon fuels like coal and natural gas.

The campaign to make renewable energy less of a priority has support in high places, including George Osborne, Conservative chancellor of the exchequer. With such a powerful advocate for a change of direction against them, the more environmentally-minded Lib Dems are digging in their heels and refusing to agree to a relaxing of green targets.

Commentators say the balance between keeping energy bills down and tackling climate change is already promising to be the big battle in Whitehall between now and the general election.

Is it disappointing that politicians abandon the high-minded aspiration to make the UK a more environmentally responsible economy when hardship strikes ordinary voters? Or is this a welcome dose of reality: the recognition that ordinary consumers cannot be expected to enjoy – or indeed vote for – policies that push up the cost of living, even if the goal is saving the planet?

Switching off

When times are hard, and families are struggling to pay for the expense of keeping their homes warm and dry, they may lose enthusiasm for policies designed to help the environment.

People experiencing extreme hardship and fuel poverty can get limited help paying their gas and electricity bills, but the costs are then added to everyone else’s energy charges, exacerbating the political problem of unpopular rising household bills.

You Decide

  1. Is tackling climate change a necessity or a luxury?
  2. ‘Developing green energy sources will be cheaper and safer in the long run, so we should pay for it now.’ Do you agree? Why/why not?

Activities

  1. ‘Saving the planet shouldn’t cost the earth.’ Can you think of a better anti-green slogan than the one George Osborne came up with?
  2. Research the mix of energy sources in your country and how long it will take to achieve the targets to reduce climate change and carbon emissions.

Some People Say...

“Climate change is the only issue that matters.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So is my family paying directly for these renewables?
Well, around 2% of UK households’ energy bills help pay for new, carbon-free energy production, of which around £9 per year goes towards supporting wind farms. But another 5% of the money from gas and electricity bills is earmarked for programmes to help the poor and elderly to pay their bills, get their homes insulated or install more efficient boilers.
Is that fair?
Interesting point. Some people are just against spending anything on either green energy or fuel poverty, because they opposed these policies. But others argue it should all be paid for out of general taxation: they say income tax is calculated according to ability to pay, so it would be fairer than adding to the cost of everyday household bills.

Word Watch

Coalition government
Britain is currently run by two parties who have allied to form a parliamentary majority: the right wing Conservatives and the smaller, centrist party the Liberal Democrats.
Greenhouse gases
Burning fossil fuels produces gases that contribute to global warming, also known as climate change.
Energy price freeze
Ministers argue a freeze would prevent important investment to ensure the country’s future power supply is secure, and that it would backfire on consumers: bills might rise dramatically both before and after the price controls were introduced
Carbon fuels
Coal, oil and natural gas are extracted for use in the energy industry from deep below the earth’s surface where they were deposited in prehistoric times.
Fuel poverty
Households are considered fuel poor if, in order to maintain a satisfactory heating regime, they need to spend more than 10% of their income on all household domestic fuel use.

Subjects

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