Helping the planet and the poor is a win-win

Guest blog: Rt Revd Dr John Thomson, Bishop of Selby 

The arrival of Spring is always a welcome moment in the year. I expect any of us have our spirits lifted by the longer days, the flowering of spring bulbs and blossom, and warmth returning to the air. This year, many of us may be breathing a sigh of relief that we can now manage with the heating turned off and anxiety over the rising cost of energy bills can subside a little over the summer months. But the high cost of oil and gas has also made us think again about how to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. 

We already know that we need to make this transition because of the carbon emissions from burning coal, oil and gas, emissions which are responsible for the devastating impacts of rising global temperatures. And we’ve always known that the end results of switching to renewable energy will be beneficial for the planet, for people, and for health. But now our dependence on fossil fuels has become very expensive, adding a financial incentive for change. 

Unequal impacts

However, in order to get cheap renewable energy, we have to spend some more money first. Earlier this year, hundreds of church leaders signed a letter urging the Government to support renewable energy, retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient. These measures would reduce heating bills, decrease carbon emissions and increase our energy security. The letter also said that there should be no support for new oil and gas developments. Adding new fossil fuel developments to those which already exist is inconsistent with limiting global heating to 1.5oC. 

Right now, it’s the poorest households in the UK which are paying the price of our inaction. Rising energy bills have dragged millions of households in the UK into fuel poverty, where more than 10%* of a household’s income is spent on energy bills. On top of this, the UK's homes are the poorest in terms of insulation compared to our European neighbours.

Meanwhile, research suggests that if government schemes supporting insulation for homes had not been cut or dropped, then millions of homes would already be warmer, with lower bills.

It is unjust that this failure to act has become such a burden on the poorest in our communities.  But failure to act on climate change is more than an issue of justice for the poor in the UK. This is also about justice for the poorest in the world. Those countries with tiny carbon emissions, which have contributed the least to rising global temperatures, are facing the impact of climate breakdown first and worst. Small island states are being swamped by rising sea-levels, small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa can no longer make a living as their livelihoods die in the drought, glaciers retreat up South American mountains, and rural communities lose their water supply.

Our choices

So far, I’ve written about the actions of governments. We can, of course, act as individuals, to cut our own carbon footprint. Where we can afford it, we can draughtproof and insulate our homes. We can choose to walk, cycle or take the bus instead of the car whenever possible. If Spring hasn’t encouraged you to turn the heating off yet, you could at least turn the thermostat down one degree. 

We can choose more sustainable options when we shop for food, clothes or other items. Often the most sustainable choice is to repair, to swap, to buy second-hand or not to buy at all. Each step might feel like a very small reduction in carbon, but the action itself creates a mandate for others to change, especially if we talk about the things we are doing to our friends and family, neighbours and colleagues.

As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, the UK has a long history of carbon emissions, and with it comes responsibility. This is our legacy, and we are leaving others to pay for it. Instead, we need to take responsibility for our actions, and invest in every way we can to cut our carbon.

The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the Bishop of Selby

*The exact definition of fuel poverty varies within Great Britain