Energy is a human right – we must end our reliance on gas to tackle this crisis
The past few months have seen mounting pressures build up in our food, water and energy supplies, the very foundations of our human needs and our society.
The availability, and crucially, affordability of food, water and energy for our homes and businesses is at risk, putting many people’s health and financial wellbeing in jeopardy.
As ever a complex web of international factors lie behind the vulnerabilities exposed, not least from the war in Ukraine, but there is a clear signal emerging. At the base of all of these problems is gas. And the current gas crisis goes well beyond our boilers and power plants.
Gas is the principle driver behind the cost of living crisis, adding £2,500 to energy bills come October. It’s set to drive inflation to 18 per cent next year. Fertiliser plants across Europe that sustain our food supplies are, worryingly, lowering output again. Why? Gas is core to the manufacture of the current generation of fertilisersand the cost is too high. And burning gas (and coal and oil) is driving climate change and extreme weather like droughts. The July heatwave (made 10 times more likely by climate change) saw the mercury hit 40.3C, damaged crops and the drought that followed is now affecting the water supplies that sustain our food and businesses. Farmers are predicting that the potato crop could be cut in half.
We are not alone in this triple crisis, but as Deutsche Bank's chief UK economist recently put it “…the UK's overdependence on gas is a big reason why gas prices I think in the UK are a little bit more elevated than elsewhere".
Anyone that suggests that our dependence on gas isn’t the problem, or that the solution is more gas, is gaslighting you. Getting off gas, something that our net-zero policies are designed to achieve, is the only way toshield ourselves from this volatility.
Anyone that suggests that our dependence on gas isn’t the problem, or that the solution is more gas, is gaslighting you
So how do we do that?
Firstly, on energy, there are some who argue that we need to simply tap our own gas reserves and that will miraculously lower the price. The problem with that logic is that unless we put the gas industry under state control, and unleash the crisis of investor confidence that would cause, we largely pay an international price.The very logical and pragmatic solution is to use less, and building on the successful Energy Company Obligation insulation scheme we can drive down bills, inflation and the waste that sees gas-fired heat leak through walls and roofs. Thousands are turning to solar panels to bring down electricity costs, and ramping up large-scale renewables means backing wind farms that produce power that’s four times cheaper than current gas power station prices, meanwhile current costs of solar is nine times cheaper than gas.
Second, water. The Met Office has said we should only expect more extreme dry weather, and wet weather, in the future. Ten parts of England are now in drought, with the south of England having experienced its driest ever summer. Dealing with the impacts of climate change on the water system today will be around £20bn cheaper than letting climate change spiral and trying to cope with ever more extreme weather. In coming years these costs could all land on struggling families through water bills if we don’t act.
But with water, some of the solutions to the triple crisis start to converge. Seventy per cent of our drinking water comes through catchments dominated by peat soils. Healthy peatlands can store 20 times their dry weight in water, reducing flooding and drought.
Third, food. High energy bills are having impacts across the food supply chain. From the energy needed to heat glasshouses to the fertilisers made from natural gas, farmers’ costs have gone nothing but up for months. The food and drink industry relies on liquid CO2 for everything from stunning animals to making drinks fizzy. But it’s made by the same factories that make fertilisers, whose gas bills have soared.
The lack of water could cut UK production of many vegetables in half this year, while high gas prices have already affected production in glasshouses.
The UK’s food security will only be shored up if climate change is limited and high-carbon inputs swapped for low-carbon ones. Farms that have solar panels and other renewables make extra income. If the two-thirds of farms followed the third that do have them, an additional £800 million could be earned by farmers over the next two years, replacing expensive gas, while losing almost nothing in food production as solar farms account for just 0.08 per cent of UK land.
Farms play a role too - healthier soils and more trees help store more water on the land when it’s wet, saving it for drier times. The Government’s new net zero farming system will help to reward these types of practices. Nature doesn’t crowd out food production, on the contrary it is the midwife of food security.
In the face of a cost of living crisis caused by the price of gas and extreme weather we must turn to the clear solution: using less gas and achieving net zero. This is how we will bring down bills and secure the basic needs of society - for food, for water, and for warmth.
Chris Skidmore MP is chair of the All Party Group on the Environment and a member of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee
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