The Blog

The Cost of Energy: Time for a Whole New Agenda for People and the Planet

Last week, EDF became the fifth of the 'Big Six' energy providers to announce an increase in energy costs for consumers this autumn. It's now a regular occurrence that energy price hikes cause anger among UK consumers, followed by stern words from political leaders.

Last week, EDF became the fifth of the 'Big Six' energy providers to announce an increase in energy costs for consumers this autumn. It's now a regular occurrence that energy price hikes cause anger among UK consumers, followed by stern words from political leaders. But now is the time to respond in a whole new way. It's time we saw these price hikes not just as another worrying squeeze for consumers, but as a signal that our energy system isn't working for people or the planet. It's why Quakers in Britain, along with campaigners and other faith groups, are calling for a new energy economy that would play it's part in building a more just, equal and sustainable society.

Since October 2010 the Big Six have increased prices by 36%. That's eight times faster than the UK average rise in earnings and three times the rate of inflation. The most recent price hikes of up to 10.4% indeed appear to have caused a moral panic. With 4.5million households already in fuel poverty and many feeling the bite of rising living costs and cuts in welfare support, Parliament have sensed the need to be seen to take the problem seriously.

Unsurprisingly, the three main parties are at odds with each other on how to take action. David Cameron has, after some pressure, called for an inquiry into energy market competition. In the meantime he and George Osborne have rounded on the cost of low-carbon technologies, threatening to cut 'green levies' that are added to consumer bills. In response, the Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey has vowed to "fight like a bull" against such attempts to scale back green commitments, and called on the public to ensure they are getting the best energy deal by switching provider. Labour Leader Ed Milliband has gone further to irk the Big Six by calling for a price freeze; a proposal branded a "left-wing gimmick" by Cameron and "intellectually bankrupt" by Davey.

The tussle between our political leaders exposes two problems with our energy economy. Firstly, when it comes to action on energy, decision makers too often perpetuate the myth that we must choose between low-carbon and low-cost. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that it is both possible and vital to deliver affordable and sustainable energy in the UK and further afield. Whilst Cameron insinuates that green action is a luxury Britain can ill afford in hard times, Parliament's Energy and Climate Change Committee have warned this week that scaling back green commitments could actually increase consumer energy bills. Earlier this year, the Baptist, Methodist and United Reform Churches showed how green energy could play a central role in tackling fuel poverty. With the support for renewables, large-scale investment in energy efficiency, and measures to protect the poorest, the UK could make energy more affordable and more sustainable. Just one step towards this would be for the Government to commit now to an energy sector decarbonisation target for 2030. Sadly, despite the fact that this measure would help channel investment and policy towards affordable and green energy, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have narrowly failed to commit to this as they negotiate the Energy Bill.

Secondly, this tussle exposes more broadly that we need to radically challenge the way the UK generates and controls energy. Many campaigners have called for greater democratic control of the energy sector to ensure a better impact on both people and the planet. Communities have already started to take back control of the energy market away from the Big Six, developing community-owned models of renewable energy production. But we also need to deeply challenge the nature of the relationship between the Government and energy companies in other ways too. Currently, while low-carbon energy relies on support from visible and politically vulnerable levies on consumer bills, the fossil fuels industry enjoys close, complex and shady support from the state. Whilst the Government considers scaling back support for renewable and efficient energy, it ensures profitability and security for the fossil fuel industry at extensive, yet often hidden, cost to the public purse. Through tax breaks, subsidies and diplomatic support, the state is propping up the industry as it invests in ever more extreme and polluting ways of exploiting fossil fuel reserves.

Whether it's the billions of pounds in field allowances for extracting gas and oil, or lending diplomatic support to extraction companies in securing business overseas, the Government has been there to ensure a smooth ride for the fossil fuels industry. It's these Government resources and expenditure that could be redirected to support robust climate policy and deliver renewable, efficient and affordable energy. In this process this would also create many thousands of jobs.

With the UN climate negotiations at Warsaw making little headway and many UK citizens worrying about how they will afford their energy bills this winter, it's time we demanded commitment to a whole new agenda for energy. In recent years, Quakers in Britain have taken action to become a low-carbon community because of our concern for the Earth and for the well-being of all who dwell in it. In October we committed to disinvest from fossil fuels and joined calls by Operation Noah and for other faith groups and institutions to do the same and 'go fossil free'. But we are also among the many voices calling more widely for sustainable and just energy. Our current energy economy is benefitting the few. By reclaiming control of our energy system and demanding action from Government, that can change.