A week in America | 21 October 2021

After a quick visit across the pond, Martin Liptrot discusses the U.S. and UK's differing solutions to the climate change problem. Is Boris' 'Heat Pumps' plan the solution?

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The weather in Florida took a change this week. The humidity dropped and average daily temperatures were between 70F and 80F with clear blue skies. Typical, this was the week I had chosen to make a quick flying visit to the UK.

As I stepped off the plane in Manchester, the weather reports told me we were in for unseasonably warm, clammy weather in the UK as hot humid air from Florida was racing across the Atlantic.

I genuinely had, it seems, brought the weather with me.

But it appears that isn’t all.

I thought I’d left behind a fractious U.S. political debate about climate change and renewable energy legislation, one which is seeing a small number of ‘moderate’ Democrats threatening to sink the President’s flagship policy wishes.

But upon checking my email and social feeds as I walked down the jetway at Terminal 2 it seems I was entering an equally lively conflab about climate and energy, one where the Great British public were fearful of having their gas boilers forcibly ripped from the cupboard under the stairs and replaced with a heavily subsidized heat pump.

Climate change and how to reverse or slow it clearly seems to be the challenge on both sides of the pond. More accurately, who is going to pay for it is the burning question.

President Biden’s plan is to tax the rich, the multinationals and the polluters to pay for drastic cuts in emissions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s idea seems less clear cut, but he is explicit in saying that it isn’t going to target fossil fuel users, heavy industry or utilities, airlines or drivers of gasoline or diesel vehicles.

Boris’s plan it seems hinges on driving down the cost of heat pumps – currently around £10,000 – to something more equivalent to the price of a replacement gas boiler and ‘letting capitalism’ do the rest.

I paid particular attention to this snippet as I’d just had a new boiler fitted to bring my home up to code and with all the installation and necessary safety switches it cost me $2500 – about £1750 – so that is some discounting required.

Stood in line waiting for immigration control, I watched a feed of Boris speaking at what appeared to be a hastily arranged visit to a gas boiler showroom. The PM declared he had met with some gas boiler repairmen and they had told him they could achieve this price cut by 2022, no bother.

Boris, clearly cheered by this news, breathlessly told reporters that this was another sign of the great entrepreneurial spirit alive in the UK since Brexit, the storied history of British design and invention and the dream that the UK was set to soon be the Silicon Valley of Clean Energy.

I don’t know about you but whenever I hear politicians say ‘Great British design’ images of the Austin Allegro always flash before my eyes.

I don’t proclaim to know if raising taxes, enforcing polluter pays policies or subsidizing new inventions is going to be best in solving the climate and energy crisis but I do know armies of lobbyists will be swarming around Westminster and Washington to make sure they get their paymasters concerns loudly heard.

The U.S. oil and gas lobby – lead by API, American Petroleum Institute – are probably the masters of this. They represent everyone involved in oil and gas production, distribution and sales and to all intents fund the election campaigns of anyone who wants to win a seat in Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alaska and any part of the country looking to drill baby, drill or cut the tops off mountains to get at cheap coal.

Not only do they have politicians scared to act against their interests, they’ve done a phenomenally successful job of branding their opponents as cranks and weirdos. And that’s not just the rick-rolling of Greta Thunberg, they have successfully minimized the credibility of the renewable energy sector.

In adrastic move the manufacturers and deployers of wind and solar energy have recently had to completely rebrand their lobbying effort from the Birkenstock-esque Wind Energy Association to the much more work boot sounding American Clean Power Association and have added Florida utility NextEra Energy to its board. They are heavyhitters in the Energy sector, last year NextEra’s market valuation briefly exceeded that of Exxon Mobil.

Hats off too to the energy sector lobbyists in the UK. If the UK Heat Pump Association exists, they’ve earned their corn this month.

But I’m still not sure Boris’s plan is going to work. My new boiler brought my property up to standard, it reduced my insurance premiums and is less likely to blow up or leak poisonous fumes than the old one – all extremely valid reasons for me to have changed it. But it isn’t reducing my carbon footprint much, is only marginally more efficient than the old one and hasn’t lead to tumbling power bills.

Why? My Florida house, like millions of others isn’t very well insulated. The cool A/C air leaks out of the doors and windows during the summer and when we do flick the heat on briefly during the winter nights isn’t retained by the thin wall and roof lagging.

In the UK, older properties are tough to insulate efficiently too, often without cavity walls and lacking the crawl space to lay insulating barriers between floor tiles and the frigid permafrost of the British soil.

Sticking a heat pump in may work wonders in freezing Stockholm where all houses are built to the highest levels of insulation, but a two up-two down in Stockport is an entirely different proposition. Rather than subsidizing heat pumps, perhaps the PM would have been better pushing the billions of pounds he is pledging to find for his greening initiative into making insulation cheaper, setting higher build standards for new homes, and then showing people how capitalism – disguised as paying less for energy – could make a lasting different to their home, their money and the planet.

Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.

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