Last year may have been the joint warmest year on record, but that fact has gone almost unnoticed in Britain. Snow fell early, and it’s been the coldest December since the Met Office started keeping records in 1910.
We’re not used to the white stuff here. Despite sharing the same northern latitude as Russia or Canada, the Gulf Stream keeps our islands relatively warm, sparing us the deep snows and extreme temperatures we’d have otherwise this far north.
The downside of that is that when harsh winters come, we’re unprepared. The roads become impassable, schools close and commuters struggle into work on delayed trains. Planes are grounded and airports close. Other countries manage fine. Stockholm airport, for example, has been open for fifty years and has never once closed because of the snow.
But transportation aside, there’s a human cost, too. Winter viruses and cold conditions combine to cause considerably more deaths in winter than at other times of the year. Cold contributed to 40,210 “excess winter deaths” across the UK in the winter of 2009. The mortality rate in the UK rises by 18% in the winter. That’s pretty serious, especially when you realize that in Norway – a much colder place – the death rate rises by around 10%.
Why is the UK so inept at weathering the cold? A lot has to do with our homes. Too many of our houses are leaky and inefficient, poorly insulated and full of drafts.
British Gas estimates that £1 in every £4 spent on heating is wasted through inadequate insulation. That’s bad news for our carbon emissions, declining North Sea gas reserves and our comfort during cold Christmases and more brutal winters.
Research shows that insulating a loft or attic pays for itself in two years and then saves around £145 a year for the next 40 years. And yet, persuading people to spend the initial £300 is difficult. Even if you want to do it, the chances are your attic is full of stuff — family heirlooms, luggage, broken appliances, sentimental crap. British insulation companies aren’t insured to move stuff out of the space, so they won’t do it. The hassle of clearing an attic is the most frequently cited reason why people haven’t insulated up there.
Basically, a whole lot of people are cold in winter because they have too much stuff.
Better to own than rent
Of course, if you’re renting, you don’t have much choice in the matter. You get what the landlord gives you. They don’t pay the bills, so there’s no incentive for them to make their properties energy efficient and the private rented sector of the housing market generally has the poorest energy ratings. If you can’t afford a place of your own, chances are you’ll have to put up a with a cold, expensive, substandard home.
There are plans to change this, with the introduction of minimum standards for rented properties. The law has been supported by environment and poverty charities together, one of those great examples of tackling climate change and poverty at the same time. UK readers, check here to make sure your MP is backing the bill, and drop them an email if they’re not.
Another avenue of attack is building regulations. They leave to a lot to be desired in the UK, compared to other countries in Europe that have long required new homes to meet minimum standards of energy efficiency.
The good news is that Britain is slowly tightening its building regulations on efficiency. New homes are supposed to be zero carbon by 2016, which is ambitious, but we may be shooting too high because we’re not great at learning from others.
When it comes to insulating homes, we have a lot to learn. The Polish guys who have been helping me to renovate my house have shown me all kinds of techniques that we don’t use in this country, including the external cladding options that keep houses in Poland snug in freezing conditions.
There are good reasons for Transition Towns to weigh in on the issue of cold homes. Twenty-seven percent of Britain’s carbon emissions come from household heating and hot water. Most of our houses are heated with natural gas, a non-renewable resource that is getting more expensive every year. Domestic fuel bills have gone up 125% is the last five years, with British households now paying an annual average of £1,200 on their gas and electricity combined.
Those costs aren’t coming down in the foreseeable future, and the number of households living in official fuel poverty (spending more than 10% of their annual household income on energy) has risen to four million.
A green initiative to create community
Encouraging energy efficiency saves people money, cuts carbon emissions, reduces energy use, and makes homes warmer and more comfortable. It creates jobs in retro-fitting, so it supports business and the local economy. And since it’s often elderly or poorer households that suffer most from high heating costs, it’s a social justice thing, too.
Home weatherization offers a perfect storm of positives, and the environmentalists get to be the good news people for a change, which is great for building consensus and getting skeptics on board.
Here in Luton, we ran an event in December called Get Cosy, where we invited local businesses and energy agencies to exhibit. We got funding for the event through the Warm Homes scheme, and were able to give away loads of free gadgets.
We made radiator reflectors in a workshop, and showed people their houses on an aerial thermal survey of the town. A couple of us trained to use the council’s thermal imaging camera, which we can borrow to do surveys of people’s houses, showing them very specifically where they’re losing heat. There are loads of ways to get involved.
As a child growing up in a poor family in Liverpool, my grandmother could remember “walking to school barefoot in the snow.”
We’ve come a long way since those times, but we’re still failing a whole load of people who have trouble heating their homes in the winter. We’re also squandering the country’s limited gas supplies. The more we waste now, the less there will be to keep our children and grandchildren warm in future decades. To say nothing of how declining supplies might shock each of us unexpectedly.
So here’s to the un-sexy subjects of insulation and energy efficiency, and a post-carbon world that’s a little warmer in a good way for once!
— Jeremy Williams