We all pay the price for widespread eco-hypocrisy

We Britons specialize in holding two opposing positions at once, especially when it comes to politics. Declared NHS lovers will incessantly complain about their long waiting lists. We do not like part-time politicians – but somehow detest career politicians even more. The sagas of Pen Farthing and Geronimo the Alpaca strongly suggest that we have been pioneering a way of being sentimental to the point where the animals are wet, while at the same time showing a marked disregard for humans in a similar situation. No one makes cognitive dissonance quite like us – an intellectually free way to get our cake and eat it.

Yesterday set another striking example in the form of the green agenda and the cost of living crisis – two completely contradictory conversations taking place at once, each without reference to the other. While Labor was leading a parliamentary debate on reducing VAT on fuel bills in the Commons, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves scolded the government for not prioritizing energy security in the UK and urged ministers to do more for struggling consumers. Many of her points were correct; and that the government is facing any kind of pressure to lower taxes must certainly be a good thing. Yet there was also a significant elephant in the Commons.

Consumers’ benefits of reducing VAT by 5 percent would be meager compared to the potential benefits of reducing the various green taxes that make up a significant part of the electricity bill, and depending on the level Ofgem sets the price cap when adjusted in April, energy companies may well absorb some of the future VAT cuts. Yet Labor dares not target the cost of green taxes because this would undermine another key aspect of their agenda; to flank the Tories on the environment so that they choose the lower hanging fruit of VAT, while congratulating themselves for being such brave defenders of the poor.

It’s not just Labor either. Despite the rising costs facing consumers, the Prime Minister stuck to green taxes when he was pressured on the subject last week, citing their importance in sustaining Britain’s renewable energy industry.

On the same day as Labor’s debate, Ovo Energy was forced to apologize for giving customers in one of its subsidiaries deliciously simplistic advice for keeping warm in their cool homes, worthy of Pippa Middleton’s infamous book about parties. Try “a cuddle with your pets and your loved ones to keep it cozy,” they said, a “hula-hoop contest” or a cheeky bowl of porridge instead of turning on the annoying radiators.

All of this attracted legitimate ridicule, but the hula-hoop competition undoubtedly seems an inevitable result of the rapid transformation in our energy consumption that all major parties have signed up for. Raising prices to discourage use is an explicit goal of many green policies; such as air passenger service. For everyone except the most insulated homes, mandatory heat pumps will almost certainly mean cooler temperatures.

Expressions of outrage from Labor and Tory environmentalists over bills are a bad case of “a little too late” when they have ignored or opposed viable forms of energy for some time – in their opposition to fracking, and in the case of the government, its long-term ambivalence to nuclear power. Labor has only recently warmed up to the idea, following a series of 2019 losses in seats like Workington and Barrow-and-Furness with nuclear power plants (in fact, with the Hartlepool city election, all “nuclear” seats are now represented by a Tory MP) .

Certainly, our current energy crisis is largely due to global pressures – low renewable production over the summer, the growing global demand for gas, a deliberate attempt by Russia to exercise leverage (potentially to weaken Europe’s response if they invade Ukraine). But we do not only suffer from the whims of international markets. Consider what our government has done with what falls under its competence. We now pay as much as 10 times more for natural gas than U.S. consumers, in part because of our lack of utilization of shale reserves. And yet, even in the midst of a consumer crisis, the government seems reluctant to sanction even a temporary reconsideration of green taxes. When asked about rising energy costs, ministers will usually respond by referring to some government subsidies or schemes, never any of the underlying causes.

This reflects a depressing shift in Tory thinking; from supply side to demand side. But the whole national conversation operates in a similar vacuum, and such contradictory thinking is directly reflected in our policies. Instead of opting for simpler ways to target environmental footprints, such as a limit-adjusted carbon tax – politicians inevitably prefer some complex rounds of taxes and exemptions that inflate bills through green taxes; then subsidize bills for those on low incomes.

As such, energy policy ends up functioning a bit like the water cycle, a self-reinforcing round of tariffs, ceilings and subsidies. At the heart of these ever-decreasing circles of ever-increasing prices is, of course, the consumer. Maybe cognitive dissonance has a cost after all.


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