Stop-go saving the plant

The government needs to follow London's example and make going green affordable

If you have ever fancied the idea of getting a government grant to help you put a wind turbine, solar panel or wood-burning stove in your house, then by the time you read this it will probably be too late – for this month at least.

The Low Carbon Buildings Programme was set up by the DTI last year to boost the take-up of renewable energy technologies on houses and community buildings, by giving away grants of up to 50 percent towards the cost of installation. £80 million was committed to the programme in total, but initially just £6.5 million to the household part of the scheme, and this was tapered over three years to stop in 2009.

Even without being properly promoted, the LCBP grants have already proved much more popular than funds allowed. When the £3.5m originally set aside for 2006/7 ran out after just six months at the end of October, the then Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, responded by shifting another £6.2 million into the household pot from elsewhere in the programme.

Despite howls from the renewable energy industry, who had already suffered a hiatus of several months at the start of the year while thrifty householders bided their time between the end of the previous ‘Clear Skies’ scheme and the start of the LCBP, the DTI decided to divide the new money into monthly rations. They said the move was to make sure the grants lasted to the end of the scheme, but it has proved a disastrous strategy.

With just half a million pounds to go around each month, the money ran out on 20 December, 12 January and then, last month, applicants logging onto the LCBP website were told to ‘try again next time’ before noon on the first day of February.

So, we’re predicting even worse this month, and the Greens have issued a plea to the government to boost the fund for March and then do something to sort out some real incentives for renewable power in the budget in three weeks’ time. My previous blog about the benefits of feed-in tariffs shows how the pay-back period for renewables can be dramatically cut, but making it possible for ordinary households to afford the up-front costs is just as important - if it isn’t going to be only the rich few taking advantage of the benefits.

The German government has got the right mix of policies – as well as setting feed-in tariffs, low cost loans are being handed out at the rate of more than a billion pounds a year. If we can create a scheme to force unwilling students to take out index-linked loans to pay for their education, we can certainly organise something similar to help the millions of willing people out there save the planet.

All this thrashing around by central government is in sharp contrast to our regional government here in London. Greens are so impressed with Mayor Ken Livingstone’s new Climate Change Action Plan that I took part in the press launch this Tuesday and even wrote a foreword for the 232-page document.

The plan aims to cut London’s emissions by 20 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2025. Many smaller measures, such as switching off lights or powering the tube with renewable energy, will contribute to these reductions.

But my two favourite ideas will also bring some of the biggest reductions. The first is decentralising our energy supply, so that a quarter of our electricity is moved off the national grid in 20 years’ time. The second is a crash programme of home insulation, lining lofts and filling the millions of cavity walls still losing heat throughout the capital.

This will be provided cut-price to everyone and completely free to pensioners and people on benefits. The average household will not only be much greener, but will also save £300 per year on its bills.

Of course, the Green Party would be keen on the plan, seeing as most of the measures in it have been prompted by our London Assembly members’ work with the Mayor.

Since 2004, they have used their voting clout over the Mayor’s annual budget to add more and more green measures to his plans, so that this year more than £150 million will be spent on things to help Londoners live more lightly on the planet, and most of these things are key parts of the action plan.

It’s very appropriate that London should be the city taking the lead on this. We are one of the most vulnerable cities to climate change worldwide, with nearly a million of us already living below high tide level, and the Thames Barrier is being raised more often than ever before.

A year before hurricane Katrina, Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist warned that, ‘cities like London, New York and New Orleans would be the first to go’ as the world warms up.

However, there is a big hole running right through the London action plan – and it’s labeled ‘central government action’. There’s only so much Londoners can do on our own and, to achieve the 60 percent cuts science tells us we need by 2025, a further 13 million tonnes a year needs to be saved with measures we don’t control.

Aviation already causes 34 percent of London’s total emissions (and that’s just counting the planes that take off from City and Heathrow airports, not the flights home or any that go from Gatwick or Stansted) so without a national change of heart on airport expansion, we will never make the targets.

Similarly, measures to encourage behaviour change, get us into cleaner cars and bring us cleaner electricity can only go so far without the same kind of vision from national government. Over to you, Gordon – we’re waiting!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.