Style versus substance

The UK is spending billions of pounds to make schools and hospitals more energy efficient. This is great news for people and the environment, yet head of fixed income Bryn Jones reckons we could be bolder – and smarter – in cutting our energy needs even further.

Cup of coffee

You can tell how busy UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been by taking the temperature of his mug in the summer mini-Budget photo op.

The £180 Ember smart mug keeps your beverage at a set temperature – as long as the battery lasts. A warning light shows it had been in use for a little too long before the camera crews bustled in to take snaps of Mr Sunak ahead of the announcement of the £30 billion COVID response set piece. To me, the whole mini-Budget scene did seem a fitting microcosm for the wider social and environmental situation we face today.

"It seems like we are trying to reduce our carbon usage with one hand while increasing our energy demands with the other. It’s the paradox at the heart of the Internet of Things efficiency drive"

We all love a good gadget – me included – so I don’t want this to sound like an attack on Mr Sunak. He’s just emblematic of all of us. It seems like we are trying to reduce our carbon usage with one hand while increasing our energy demands with the other. It’s the paradox at the heart of the Internet of Things efficiency drive. The idea that when all your fridges, televisions, heating and coffee mugs are connected through the cloud, you become more aware of your energy consumption and therefore more careful about what you use. But that cloud is powered by huge datacentres that are proliferating rapidly all round the world. And those centres are gobbling up tremendous amounts of power …

A china mug is less energy intensive and more sustainable than a smart mug, replete with rare earth metals, that needs charging every day. Or electric scooters to replace the ones you used to power with your own feet – and get picked up by petrol vans each night for charging. How many other ‘old-tech’ everyday things which work perfectly as they are will be added to our energy demands in the coming decade? And the people most likely to be creating these new demands are the wealthier among us – to buy an Ember you’d have to work half a week on the UK’s minimum wage.

It’s the same story on a global level, too. The countries with high energy demands and (consumption-based) emissions are invariably developed ones. While we tend to paint developing nations as more likely to be embracing dirty energy, the pollution pales in comparison to the effect of more affluent lifestyles in richer countries. We travel more on massive airliners, drive large SUVs rather than 50cc motorbikes, have several TVs compared with one phone, and eat protein-heavy diets that do the planet no good.

Thankfully, the realisation that there is a hidden environmental cost to living the Western life has spread rapidly in the past few years. People can now ensure that the appliances and vehicles they have consume the least amount of power. Public support for sustainability drives, energy efficiency and replacing carbon power with renewables means government investment in energy efficiency has been dragged fully into the political mainstream.This changing energy mix has helped reduce carbon emissions per capita in several large developed economies (the UK included) without simply outsourcing the carbon production to other nations.

Which takes us back to Mr Sunak’s mini-Budget. As part of the Clean Growth Strategy to halve UK public sector greenhouse emissions by 2032, the government is going to spend £1 billion over the next year to drag many state buildings into the 21st century. Through grants, especially to schools and hospitals, the government will fund both energy efficiency and low-carbon heat upgrades. This is great news: better heating methods and the insulation to ensure the warmth is retained will have a significant effect on reducing UK energy use and emissions.

“Going off the number of jumpers I’ve noticed on Zoom calls during the miserable summer weather, many people’s houses could do with a bit of retrofitted insulation too!”

Heating is a very large part of the national power load, particularly for households. Going off the number of jumpers I’ve noticed on Zoom calls during the miserable summer weather, many people’s houses could do with a bit of retrofitted insulation too! There’s a patchwork of grants and support schemes out there for making these simple yet intrusive changes to UK homes, but they haven’t seemed to get the push that the nationwide smartmeter rollout has. I think it would be better for people and the environment if we ensured every home was well insulated without a whizzy meter, rather than the opposite.

If the government wants any help financing that, we’d be happy to put up the cash!

 

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