Why we must tackle our aversion to energy efficiency to achieve net zero

Don McLean, founder and CEO at IES argues that the focus should be on increasing our renewable assets rather than taking a long-term punt on oil and gas

On the surface, it is easy to see why the current energy crisis has led governments to resort to short-term measures to address the sky-rocketing price of fuel and threats of power outages. In the UK, the government is still mooting plans to issue more than 100 new licences for North Sea oil and gas extraction, despite Rishi Sunak’s promises at COP27 to support a clean energy transition and divert away from polluting fossil fuels.

However, while I can see the intentions, it should be clear to those in power that increasing investment in fossil fuels is a completely wrong, reactionary approach. It could take years to expand North Sea oil and gas production, by which time the current crisis may have stabilised giving us a regular oil and gas supply again, and we will still be faced with the question of how to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

On the other hand, if we were to spend the coming months increasing our renewable energy capacity, which could likely be achieved more quickly than new oil and gas projects, we will be tackling the current situation in a way that will also benefit us all long term.

At the same time, we could and should be making serious efforts to reduce our energy consumption. It is now commonly understood that the cheapest form of decarbonisation is energy efficiency, so let us start looking at key sectors, such as the built environment, and establish how can we start to apply energy reduction approaches now.

Frustratingly, our government consistently seems to veer away from an energy efficiency first approach. On 9th November, Lord Deben, chairman of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), wrote a letter urging the UK government to take urgent action to reduce the energy demand within UK buildings, which it warns is now the biggest gap in current Government energy policy. According to the CCC, a decade ago, 2.3 million energy efficiency measures were installed annually through Government-backed schemes but, in 2021, this dropped to fewer than 100,000.

Statistics like this are complete madness, particularly during a time when spiralling energy prices are driving a much shorter return on investment on energy efficiency measures. While fuel subsidies may provide short-term relief to those struggling to pay their bills, this is money which cannot be recouped. By channelling further investment towards energy efficiency, we can secure operational cost and carbon savings for years to come, help our most vulnerable and maintain progress on net-zero.

The government’s aversion to an energy efficiency first approach may be because it tends to look at the climate crisis from a macroscopic perspective. While decarbonisation as a concept is not microscopic, when it comes to decarbonising the built environment for example – which currently accounts for almost 40 per cent of all carbon emissions – this requires looking at individual buildings and seeing how you can make each one more efficient.

It has been widely reported that the number of delegates with links to fossil fuels at COP27 jumped 25 per cent from last year’s summit. These players will undoubtedly be keen to sway government policy with promises of new jobs that can be created by the oil and gas industry. However, helping people to decarbonise their homes on a national scale would undoubtedly create far more, while also improving people’s standard of living and reducing their outgoings.

Of course, it will not be easy, but neither will drilling for oil and gas, and it will have to be done eventually one way or another so why not start now? It will not be a fast process, but even just beginning by looking at local authority and public sector buildings would get the ball rolling and help to reduce government overheads. The money saved on an annual basis could then be circled back and used to subsidise people’s energy bills and, ultimately, to help them reduce the energy consumption in their homes as well.

Sadly, it seems it is possible that governments see the difficulty in decarbonising the built environment, so is leave it as a problem for the next government to solve. However, this constant deferment of these sorts of challenges is one of the reasons we are yet to see any real change, despite all the pledges. It would be fantastic to see a renewed interest in decarbonisation as a climate mitigation strategy amongst our leadership following COP27 – there are plenty of experts ready and eager to offer advice and guidance to make it a reality.

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