Blog: How do we save the planet - and keep Betty warm this winter?

News | Posted on Monday 11 October 2021

The climate change conference offers a golden opportunity to tackle climate change - and at the same time develop policies to ease the burden of fuel poverty, argues Dr Carolyn Snell from our Department of Social Policy and Social Work.

Climate change affects everyone. It can be tempting to regard it as an issue that we are disconnected from, something that affects others, something when compared to our immediate lives can be put off, dealt with tomorrow, or by someone else. The COP meetings, and the events that surround them, are of enormous importance, and COP26 is generally regarded as the most significant meeting since the Paris climate agreement in 2015.  

In the words of Alok Sharma, President of COP26 it is simply our ‘last chance to avoid the worst climate change’.

Deprived communities

While the warnings about climate change are becoming starker, evidence suggests that it is usually the poorest, most vulnerable in society that will be affected by it - and the UK is no exception to this. In the UK for example people living in socially deprived coastal communities have been identified as more vulnerable to the direct impacts of climate change than other communities, and combinations of different socio-economic and demographic factors (such as age, income, and health) are also likely to heighten vulnerability to climate change (JRF 2011).  

Moreover, there are concerns about the potentially negative effects of climate policy. Given this, since the Paris Agreement, the discourse around climate policy has emphasised the importance of a ‘just transition’. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), emphasises the importance of protecting those affected by the transition to a low carbon economy and by taking early action to minimise negative impacts and maximise positive opportunities (IISD).  

Betty the hypothetical pensioner

In my teaching, I ask my undergraduate students to think about Betty, a hypothetical pensioner who represents one of 3.18 million English households in fuel poverty. I ask my students: ‘How will we keep Betty warm this winter?’   

We talk through the options for Betty. The simplest option that comes up is to provide Betty with extra cash or to subsidise her energy bills. However, it has become clear that social issues such as fuel poverty sit within a much wider context and set of policy issues, in this case, climate change.  

UK policymakers have come to recognise this over the last couple of decades. As a result, fuel poverty policy tends to emphasise energy efficiency improvements to domestic heating, and other energy efficiency measures (usually in combination with financial subsidies).  The logic is that improving the energy efficiency of a home has the potential to reduce energy bills but also reduce carbon emissions - a ‘win-win’ situation for both policy agendas. 

Net-zero target

The UK has been regarded as a leader in climate change policy, embodied by its national Climate Change Act of 2008, the first of its kind, a legally binding target of reducing carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050 (UK Gov), and most recently, the hosting of COP26 in Glasgow in 2021.  

There are many positive opportunities for change. Taking the example of Betty - improvements to the UK’s worst housing would have a substantial impact on the country’s carbon emissions and have the potential to improve housing conditions for many (as my colleagues and I argue in the following blog from the Social Policy Association). The UK must take decisive action on climate change, and, if the UK government really cares about people like Betty, our politicians should also embrace the opportunity to simultaneously improve living conditions for those most in need. 

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Carolyn Snell

Carolyn Snell

Dr Snell's research largely focuses on energy policy in the UK, with a particular interest in fuel poverty.

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