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The spark for a retrofitting revolution

Author: Ed Matthew, Associate Director, E3G

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a commitment to spend £3 billion on making buildings energy efficient. This was a major breakthrough for organisations like E3G, a climate change thinktank who have been campaigning to make energy efficiency an infrastructure investment priority. Here, Ed Matthew, Associate Director at E3G reflects on the journey to persuade the Government to invest in energy efficiency and help end fuel poverty.

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced on 8th July his first major package of measures to help the economy recover. At the heart of them was a commitment to spend £3 billion on making buildings energy efficient.

In the lead up to the Summer Statement, voices had been growing louder for action to improve the efficiency of our buildings – in fact, it was becoming deafening. Everyone from unions to the CBI, from fuel poverty activists to the economists of the International Energy Agency, were pointing out that this was one of the best ways to build back better. It was an opportunity to support over 100,000 jobs and boost economic demand whilst slashing carbon emissions and tackling the blight of fuel poverty – all at the same time. And the Chancellor duly answered, backing a major energy efficiency based stimulus programme.

This is a huge breakthrough for all those organisations who have been working for many years to make energy efficiency an infrastructure investment priority. E3G has been leading that campaign with support from Trust for London. It has been a long, hard road.

Between 2013 and 2015, E3G built up a campaign to persuade the Government to put capital investment into building energy efficiency, the Energy Bill Revolution. The call for action was based on the appalling levels of fuel poverty in the UK, with 2.4 million households in fuel poverty in England alone and 390,000 thousand in London. This was strongly related to the appalling energy efficiency of the UK building stock, the least energy efficient in western Europe. It is estimated that in the UK at least 10,000 people die every year from living in cold homes. That is 100,000 early deaths from living in cold homes in the last decade. Making homes energy efficient is also mission critical to achieve net-zero emissions.

But our initial campaign, despite achieving one of the broadest levels of support of any climate or poverty related campaign in recent years and getting the support of the Scottish Government who decided to back it, ran into the Treasury. The only way to make buildings energy efficient across the UK, especially for the fuel poor, is to use major public investment to spark a huge retrofitting programme. But the Treasury was not convinced that this made good economic sense.

In 2016 E3G founded a new alliance – the Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group (EEIG) – led by business stakeholders. It focused on revealing the enormous economic benefits that such a programme could bring. It undertook ground-breaking research that showed that investing capital funds in a building energy efficiency programme would deliver economic returns as great as any other infrastructure programme, but with far more co-benefits. It was a programme that could create jobs in every corner of the UK and it was essential in order to move to an affordable zero carbon heating system. We developed a detailed delivery vision. No other infrastructure programme could do so much for so many.

By 2018 we had achieved the support of the National Infrastructure Commission and growing support from business and energy system experts as well as Parliamentarians and Select Committees. By the election of 2019 we had the support of all the major parties, with the Conservatives making a pledge in their manifesto to spend at least £9.2 billion to support building energy efficiency, including 6.3 billion targeted at low income households.

In the last six months, as the economic crisis developed in the wake of the pandemic, E3G and the members of the EEIG led the growing calls for this investment to be retained and brought forward. We succeeded.

We now need to ensure that this stimulus is not the end of the road, but the beginning of a retrofitting revolution.

In the Autumn, the Government will deliver its Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review. It will also be launching its infrastructure, heat and buildings and fuel poverty strategies. It is essential that as part of this critical series of announcements, the Treasury commits to a major long-term programme of capital investment in energy efficiency, with the aim of making all UK buildings energy efficient within a decade.

This is the bigger prize to ensure the economic gains from the stimulus are not lost. We can help end the scourge of fuel poverty. We can become a global leader in building decarbonisation. We can create thousands of jobs, boost the economy and slash energy bills in London and across the UK. This is the way to build back better and we are ready for the final push.