Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels can solve the cost of living crisis, says Tessa Khan, a lawyer, campaigner, strategist and founder and director of Uplift, talking with Maryam Pasha and guest co-host Clover Hogan on the latest Climate Curious podcast by TEDxLondon, recorded live at The Conduit in London.

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The Big Idea

Fossil fuels are at the root of the cost of living crisis. 

Fossil fuels are pretty abstract and complicated as evil supervillains go so that might not sound like the best of news.

But we have the real solutions to the cost of living crisis, and it starts with reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Tessa Khan, lawyer, campaigner, strategist and founder and director of Uplift, joins the dots between the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis and explains why today is the perfect moment to tell the story about the true cost of our reliance on fossil fuels. 

Three intersecting crises

Right now, we are facing 3 major crises:

  • The cost of living crisis, which is projected to push a third of households in the UK into fuel poverty this winter.
  • The climate crisis, which most recently has displaced 33 million people in Pakistan, leaving a third of the country underwater. 
  • The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, which has made 7 million people refugees.

The common denominator? Fossil fuels, according to Tessa Khan, lawyer, campaigner, strategist and founder and director of Uplift.

“There’s a common thread that runs through all of those and that is the role of fossil fuels. Russia’s military machine is underwritten by fossil fuels, funded by its oil and gas exports. Obviously, the climate crisis is driven overwhelmingly by the combustion of fossil fuels, which account for the vast majority of climate pollution for greenhouse gas emissions. And then there’s the cost of living crisis, which, in the UK, and across Europe, and more broadly, is overwhelmingly being driven by the soaring price of gas.”

Tessa Khan

Sounds pretty bleak, right? But it’s also, according to Tessa, “an opportunity for us to tell a story at this moment about the true cost of our reliance on fossil fuels.” 

But let’s rewind.

What has my energy bill got to do with Putin?

You might be asking yourself: “But what has my energy bill got to do with Putin?” or even thinking “I’m just worried about keeping the lights on this winter.” We hear you. Tessa agrees: “Maybe this isn’t the moment to talk about climate change. It’s the moment to talk about the cost of living in the UK and that is the best entry point for a conversation around our reliance on gas.”

Let’s unpack that a little. The invasion of Ukraine caused an instantaneous global shock to the fossil fuel industry. Russia is one of the biggest oil producers in the world and as its attacks on Ukraine intensified, traders, shippers, and financiers rejected the country’s oil, removing a lot of it from the daily global supply. 

This decrease in global supply made prices jump because when there is less of something (especially if the world is dependent on that something to keep on turning), it becomes more valuable. 

This means that although the government says “the UK is in no way dependent on Russian gas supply,” it didn’t have to be to feel the shockwaves of a war on the other side of Europe. 

As the price of oil and gas went up worldwide, so did energy bills.

Why is the UK particularly affected?

Energy bills in the UK are higher than they are anywhere in Europe. That’s because we are exceptionally dependent on gas to heat our homes. A whopping 85% of UK households have gas boilers in them. In a nutshell, our dependence on gas has got us in a headlock. 

We also have some of the leakiest homes in Western Europe. 

“At the moment, there are 19 million homes across the UK that are so energy inefficient that people are effectively paying an additional £1000 on their energy bills.”

Why we should be demanding financial support and an end to gas

Although Prime Minister Liz Truss has just unveiled plans to limit energy bill rises, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, an organisation that Tessa works with, estimates that even with the energy price cap frozen at £2,500, 6.9 million UK households will still be in fuel poverty this winter.

What’s more, this is not just a winter 2022 problem, according to Tessa. Global gas prices are expected to stay high until 2025.

“We’ve experienced the increase of gas prices, somewhere around five fold, and they are not coming down anytime soon […] If we don’t get on top of the root cause of this — our dependency on gas — then we’re going to be in exactly the same situation in a year’s time.”

Tessa Khan

So it’s all well and good Liz Truss pledging to “tackle the root cause of these problems, so that we are not in this position again,” but the energy strategy (basically a document that says where we’re going to get our energy from over the next few years) released earlier this year didn’t tell the same story. 

The strategy in a nutshell? More investment in fossil fuels. It’s like getting bitten by a venomous snake and deciding to keep a pet scorpion instead. 

What’s not the answer?

It might seem counterintuitive to think that opening up new gas fields is not the answer to a shortage of gas, but that is the answer. 

These gas fields won’t even be up and running for another 30-40 years but what they will do is lock us into even greater dependence on gas. 

It also flies in the face of the UK’s commitment to be a ‘climate leader’ and its promise to stay on the track to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

What’s the answer?

It’s not rocket science: insulation and renewable energy. 

First, insulation. “If we insulated the 19 million homes leaking energy, we would save the energy equivalent of six Hinkley Point nuclear power plants,” says Tessa. What’s a Hinkley Point? A gigantic power plant in the UK.

Second, renewable energy. Right now, wind and solar are at record-low prices and 9 times cheaper than gas. That sounds like it’d bring down energy bills a fair bit. 

We’d stop lining Putin’s war coffers, stop destroying the planet and get the cost of energy (and therefore the cost of living) down. Three evils, one proverbial renewable shaped stone.

“What we’ve got to do is grasp the other solutions that actually are cheap that are available here in the UK, and that we can roll out at scale within months, if not years. and make that the solution to the crisis.”

Tessa Khan

Meanwhile, oil and gas companies are making huge amounts of money to the tune of £16 billion of profit. 

Yet, we offer the most generous tax conditions in the world for big oil. In recent years, Tessa explains, they’ve paid negative tax. 

So what we should also be doing, Tessa says, is demanding that fossil fuel companies pay their fair share of their enormous profits to help ordinary families offset their energy bills. 

“We’ve got to hold an industry that has lobbied funded climate change denial, and now is profiteering from multiple crises to account.”

If it’s so simple, why is this not happening?

There’s a moratorium on new on-shore wind and solar farms — that means they’re not allowed. 

“Why?!” you might find yourself shrieking. 

There is “an ideological opposition on the part of some people within government to the idea that we will blight the British landscape with wind turbines and solar farms,” says Tessa. In other words, it’s an aesthetic issue.

It’s also pretty difficult to hold big oil accountable, but not impossible. The windfall tax, introduced in May 2022, forced oil and gas companies to pay up — and it happened because of the power of the people.

“[The UK government only introduced the windfall tax] because they heard how outraged people were about the fact that exactly the same dynamic that is driving households across the UK into despair this winter, is what is causing oil and gas companies to operate as cash machines.”

Tessa Khan

Now is the moment.

We know the solution to the triple-whammy of crises happening simultaneously. And now is the moment, Tessa states, to hold our government and oil and gas companies to account. 

Your homework this week

Until next time — stay curious!

Tune in to the latest Climate Curious by TEDxLondon with co-hosts Maryam Pasha and Clover Hogan from The Conduit in London as we discuss how to solve the cost of living crisis with Tessa khan.

Listen here: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | RSS | Android

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