Miliband's challenge: can you freeze energy bills and cut carbon at the same time?

The Labour leader may need to move some of the cost of energy efficiency schemes from consumer bills to taxation.

Ed Miliband has made a seemingly impossible promise. Energy bills will be frozen while the UK invests billions to stop burning gas and coal for power. What was he thinking? Implementing his plan may be more radical than it seems.

For years the established energy mantra has been "choose your poison". Bills can go up with rising gas prices or the cost of new wind-farms, but either way, they’ll go up. As the prediction has morphed into reality politicians have tried to find a way out.

Fracking - it’s said - will flood the market with cheap gas or energy efficiency will be so effective, so quickly, that households won’t even notice the extra costs. Neither idea currently looks like it will work.In a recent submission to Parliament, Bloomberg argued UK shale gas would cost about what we currently pay - just to get it out of the ground. And if what you are trying to do is cut global carbon emissions, fracking seems an odd way to go about it given that shale gas is a fossil fuel that releases carbon pollution when burned.

Officially, at least, the government still thinks home insulation will mean bills are lower in 2020 than they are now. Yet that can only happen if households have spent to insulate their homes (or consumers have been charged through their bills to subsidise it). The Green Deal was meant to square that circle, but it is manifestly not (yet) working.

Underlying the seemingly intractable problem is a silent assumption that all the costs of energy policy should be paid for almost entirely through bills, at market rates, with the help of the big six. It’s hard to freeze bills and invest billions if you insist that every cost you impose must be passed directly on to the consumer at rates of interest higher than the average mortgage.

It’s especially difficult if you insist on putting implementation for your policies into the hands of an group of firms who have very little to gain but much to lose if things go wrong. And it’s almost impossible if consumers don’t see any way of sharing in the profits on the investments they are paying for. These assumptions have their own logic, but it isn’t about freezing bills. If Miliband wants to fulfil his promise, it’s that set of assumptions he may have to break.

Some of the costs levied on bills go straight to the Treasury. The government’s Carbon Price Floor, for example, drives up the cost of power, supposedly in a (so far unsuccessful) attempt to make coal more expensive than gas. It’s expected to raise around £2bn for the Treasury by 2017, and more after that. But, if you are committed to cutting carbon out of the energy mix, a carbon tax on power plants is hardly a long term deficit fix.

Miliband could scrap it - replacing it with regulation to phase out carbon emissions from coal plants. Or he could use the money to pay for efficiency schemes - or simply to give every household a flat rebate on their bills.

More controversial would be measures which effectively move some of the cost to taxation, rather than bills, arguably a fairer way to pay for new infrastructure since it would enable the government to protect the most vulnerable people in society such as the fuel poor. The main way to do this would be to underwrite loans at low rates of interest - something the Germans already do. Loans for the government’s Green Deal energy efficiency scheme start at around 6 or 7%.

Reducing them to something closer to inflation would cut the cost to households and reduce the need to subsidise insulation measures through bills. The same logic applies to investments in clean energy.The cost of borrowing money helps determine how much consumers pay for the power but right now it can be too high, partly because investors worry about the government changing its mind.

Instead of paying investors to make up for their uncertainty the government could take on more of the risk itself (through the Green Investment Bank, for example) reducing the cost of borrowing and encouraging stability in energy policy. And just as we currently use taxpayer money to fund roads the treasury could invest in a new north sea grid which could benefit the whole economy and lower the costs of energy.

R&D and the development of new heat and sea based technologies could also come from taxation. The investment is relatively small and doesn’t just benefit bill payers - if they work - the technologies could provide exports for the whole economy, indeed we already fund renewable heat this way.

But cutting costs can’t just be about taking risk away from the private sector, or switching the burden away from bills. It could also be about challenging the perceived monopoly of the big six utilities and institutional investors by encouraging the UK’s regions and individuals to invest in its new energy infrastructure. By comparison, in Germany most of the investment in clean energy comes from individuals and local authorities and not the transnational energy giants. This needn’t be just about village based community projects. Why shouldn’t the City of Newcastle, for example, be an investor in the wind farm which provides it with power and jobs? Some policies are there - but not the funding.

Local projects, backed by residents through crowd-sourcing schemes, cooperatives or local authorities may also face fewer delays, driving down costs. And if local authorities, communities or individuals invest in clean energy then the returns go back to those communities - opening up the potential for the money to be used to cut bills further.

New entrants may be particularly important if the existing energy retailers become reluctant investors as a result of policies to freeze bills. In the short-term, a spike in the price of gas - due to war overseas, for example - will put pressure on energy firms to push up bills.

A two year freeze may be possible - by forcing firms to buy more of their gas on long term contracts. The main risk, for companies, would be that their customers switch away - but the industry isn’t exactly known for it’s fast customer turnaround. Labour has also suggested the cap may be moved in the event of extreme events like a war.

More storage, greater European regulation of the market, and moves to split firms up so they don’t buy and sell gas from themselves may help - as would the very retro and highly unlikely notion of state support at times of price spikes. Whilst gas is a big part of our energy mix action, these measures may keep prices stable on average - but the ride will be bumpy - both up and down. Ultimately, freezing bills probably means not just changing how we fund our energy infrastructure but changing what we use to generate the power and the heat we need.

Damian Kahya is editor of Greenpeace Energydesk

Ed Miliband gives a radio interview next to a giant ice cube representing Labour's energy price freeze at the party's conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Damian Kahya is editor of Greenpeace Energydesk

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Obama's Hiroshima visit is a wake up call on the risks of nuclear weapons

The president's historic visit must lead to fresh efforts to rid our world of destructive missiles and safeguard our futures.

We now know more than ever the dangers of an accidental or deliberate detonation of a nuclear weapon. We also realise that there can be no adequate humanitarian response to such a nightmare scenario.

Malfunctions, mishaps, false alarms and misinterpreted information have nearly led to the intentional or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons on numerous occasions since 1945, according to testimonies by experts and former nuclear force officers. In the past two years alone, the organisation Global Zero has documented scores of “military incidents” involving nuclear weapon states and their allies, alongside the increasing risks stemming from cyberattacks.

Put this together with recent insight into the appalling long-term health impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions themselves, and the sheer human cost of any future nuclear bomb blast, and you have a truly alarming picture.

We were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki last year, speaking to survivors, or hibakusha, as they are known. More than 70 years on, their lives, and the lives of countless people in Japan, are still overshadowed by these two watershed events in the history of modern warfare.

After the detonations, Red Cross staff struggled in unimaginable conditions to relieve the suffering caused by the atomic blasts. With hospitals reduced to rubble and ash and medical supplies contaminated, the provision of even basic health care was well nigh impossible.

But the nightmare is far from over even today.

Doctors at the Japanese Red Cross Society hospitals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki say that some two-thirds of the deaths among elderly hibakusha are from probably radiation-related cancers. And aside from the physical symptoms, the psychological trauma is still ever present.

No-one who visits Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, or who sees the continued suffering of thousands of elderly survivors, can be in any doubt of the catastrophic and irreversible effects of nuclear weapons. Nor could they in good conscience argue that these weapons somehow act as guarantors of global security or protectors of humanity as a whole.

Of course, the bombs in the arsenals of nuclear-armed States today are far more powerful and destructive. And modern research only makes the case against them stronger. Studies suggest that the use of nuclear weapons now even on a limited scale, would have disastrous and long-lasting consequences on human health, the environment, the climate, food production and socioeconomic development.

Health problems would span generations, with children of survivors facing significant risks from the genetic damage inflicted on their parents.

Seventy years after the dawn of the "nuclear age", there may be no effective or feasible means of assisting a substantial portion of survivors in the immediate wake of a nuclear detonation.

And make no mistake. The devastation of a future bomb will show no respect for national borders. It is likely to ravage societies far beyond its intended target country. Which makes the continued existence of nuclear weapons and the risk that entails a global concern.

Faced with these conclusions, you might imagine the international community would pull back from the brink of potential tragedy and take steps to eradicate these weapons.

Sadly, last year’s review conference of the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which had the opportunity to advance disarmament, failed to do so.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has called on States to negotiate an international agreement to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons within a binding timetable. We reiterate that call today. The political will to rid the world of this menace must urgently be found.

Until the last nuclear weapon is eliminated, there are essential steps which nuclear States can and must take now to diminish the danger of another Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is imperative that these States and their allies reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their military plans, doctrines and policies and cut the number of nuclear warheads on high alert status. The current modernization and proliferation of nuclear arsenals is leading us towards potential catastrophe.

The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the human suffering inflicted still holds powerful lessons. President Obama’s landmark visit on Friday will surely be a powerful reminder of the terrible destruction that nuclear weapons wreak.

We must act on this reminder.

To truly pay homage to those whose lives were lost or irrevocably altered by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, President Obama’s visit must galvanize the international community to move without delay towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

The fact that these weapons have not been used over the past 70 years does not guarantee a risk-free future for our children. Only the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons can do that.

Peter Maurer is President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Tadateru Konoe is President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and of the Japanese Red Cross Society.