The UK is heading towards a period of economic uncertainty. The cost-of-living crisis, inflation, and an increase in energy prices have further stressed the finances of households. With a rapid increase in the number of households experiencing difficulty in affording their domestic energy, many will be unable to secure the level of energy needed for their home – a situation commonly termed fuel poverty, or energy poverty. In this blog, Amish Sarpotdar, Kate Scott, Manon Burbidge, and Stefan Bouzarovski discuss how social vulnerabilities to energy poverty are unevenly distributed across regions, and therefore exploring ‘where’ such inequalities are starkly evident is of significance.
- Different households use vastly different quantities of energy. Evidence in the UK has shown that the energy footprint of the wealthiest 10% in the UK is nearly five-times higher than the lowest 10%.
- Our research shows that there is a clear link between energy and transport poverty, a north-south divide, and an urban-rural divide. Plus, other factors (gender, ethnicity and housing situation) intersect with energy poverty and these must be considered by policymakers too.
- Policies on energy and transport inequality should be holistic and use a place-based lens for delivery of benefits and resources. Whilst support for these policies should be driven at the national level, delivery strategies must be coordinated by local government and local authorities. Communities must also be consulted with on any measures that address local energy poverty or transport poverty situation.
Geographical energy inequality
The government estimates that around 13% of households in England, 25% in Scotland, and 18% of households in Northern Ireland were energy poor in 2018.
These figures give an idea of the bigger picture, but they can’t give information on what energy poverty looks like in each area or where the most energy-deprived areas are. For example, it is tempting to assume that Scotland has a larger share of energy-poor households than the other regions but a direct comparison is limiting when each individual UK region has varying definitions of what energy poverty is.
New analysis from the CREDS project addresses this issue by developing an original combined index of energy and transport poverty for the whole of the UK. This index allows analysis of vulnerabilities of energy and transport poverty across the UK.
The energy poverty metric includes the heating burden on household budgets, as well as energy efficiency and social vulnerability statistics, whereas the transport poverty metric is constructed based on car dependency, access to amenities and social vulnerability.
From the analysis of both the indicators, two clear patterns are visible: – a north-south and an urban-rural divide. Vulnerabilities to energy poverty are most visible in the suburban areas of north and northeast England, however, regional and local characteristics that influence the character of energy and transport injustices are only visible with separate evidence and analysis.
While these regional inequalities are not new, the new evidence reiterates that levelling up policies need to include the disparities of access to energy and transport services.
Energy footprint disparities
A household’s direct energy use is often reduced to the quantity of energy used for heating and cooling, powering homes and driving cars. However, a considerable number of injustices and asymmetries exist in the provision of energy services.
Households also use energy indirectly across the full international supply chain of goods and services that they consume. For example, energy is used to produce the clothes, food, computers and the bricks and mortar needed for buildings.
Energy footprints consider both direct and indirect energy requirements and have been combined with the concept of energy services to understand the energy needed to provide basic services including mobility, shelter, nutrition, consumables healthcare and education.
Different households use vastly different quantities of energy. Evidence in the UK has shown that the energy footprint of the wealthiest 10% in the UK is nearly five-times higher than the lowest 10%.
The share of energy use differs as well. For example, a greater share of a lower-income household’s footprint is for heating and cooking whereas the share of energy for mobility is greater for richer households.
While income and geography are strong determiners of energy use, so are demographics, gender, density, ethnicity, and household type and tenure. Our preliminary findings show private renters in suburban areas are comparatively more susceptible to facing energy and transport poverty than their inner-city counterparts.
Disproportionate Impact of Energy Policy
The UK’s dependency on imported gas and the slow transition to renewable energy is partly responsible for the rise in energy bills. Households both use energy disproportionately and pay disproportionately towards low carbon policy, contributing to such policies, via direct energy bills and general taxation.
As a result, the costs of the transition fall disproportionately on poorer households, and those who are more dependent on energy to meet basic needs. They also spend disproportionately more on energy relative to their income.
Lower-income households spend most on direct energy use, meaning that a higher share of their income is spent on low carbon policies. Ironically, the costs of installing low carbon technologies such as heat pumps and solar PVs, that reduce bills, tend to be high and prohibitive.
Solutions for policymakers
While policy measures such as progressive taxes and demand reduction can help reduce socio-economic inequalities and provide benefits for affordability, accessibility and health; the government has tended to shy away from them. Measures such as one-off rebates are short term fixes that cannot be sustained. Such measures fail to account for socio-economical differences between geographical areas. Moreover, they fail to account for other energy needs of households such as that of transport.
- Policies on energy and transport inequality should be holistic and use a place-based lens for the delivery of benefits and resources. Whilst support for these policies should be driven at the national level, delivery strategies must be coordinated by local government and local authorities.
- Policymakers should identify and map areas experiencing energy and transport deprivation to ensure that benefits and resources are efficiently distributed. At the same time, policymakers should determine what energy and transport service support is required by vulnerable social groups such as ethnic minorities, private renters, gender minorities, pensioners, and single households.
- Policies should be designed by engaging with the public to understand the policy’s acceptability. For example, schemes where white goods and boilers are leased to households (with the intention of service providers shifting from selling energy to providing a more efficient energy service) could risk leaving those unable to keep up with monthly payments without heating, risking their success.
- Based on our curated database and analysis, it is possible to map zones of energy and transport vulnerability in the UK. This provides policymakers with an evidence base to action a strategy that aims to alleviate both energy and transport poverty. For example, it is possible for local authorities to understand where to prioritise low-cost public transport and at the same time invest in energy efficient social housing.
- Data should be used to inform and target specific policy interventions such as reducing car dependency and improving access to public transport for poorer households and residents in semi-rural areas. For example, understanding the geographical variation in percentage of car ownership across the UK, can help policymakers to focus resources for active or car free travel initiatives in these areas to make sure policies are as targeted, and effective, as possible.
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