John Humphrys - Chilled out? Maybe you should be…

September 09, 2022, 12:34 PM GMT+0

Stand by for a new public behaviour campaign launched by the government. Many moons ago such campaigns were commonplace – almost all of them justified on the basis that they were for our own good. Road safety campaigns were typical of the genre but they’ve rather faded away. No doubt ministers have long since accepted that we’ve probably got the message by now that it makes sense to look both ways before we cross the road. We were likewise deluged with “stay safe” messages at the height of covid.

This new campaign is different. It will be aimed not at our physical well-being but at our pockets and, ultimately, at national security. We shall be told to use less energy. Boris Johnson disapproved of the idea when he was in Number Ten. He took the view that how much energy we used was a matter for every individual - not for the state. Liz Truss, it seems, disagrees. Where do you stand?

Critics of the campaign say it is simply pointless. Its two main messages, according to The Times which broke the story, is that we should turn down our thermostats and switch off electrical appliances that are not in use rather than leave them on standby. To which the sceptics say: why waste taxpayers’ money stating the obvious? Is there a householder in the land who does not know that the higher the thermostat is set the more electricity we shall burn and the more we shall have to pay? If we really have failed to make any connection between energy use and energy bills it is vanishingly unlikely that we will pay the slightest bit of attention to an official voice intoning the message.

There are also, of course, millions of people who won’t bother listening because they do not need to be told about saving energy. They were born to it. Those enough to have lived through those grim post-war years did not have to turn down the thermostat for the very good reason that central heating did not exist. In my own case we had a coal fire in the kitchen and a paraffin heater which smelled disgustingly for use in emergencies. On the coldest winter days it was perfectly normal to scrape the ice off the inside of the bedroom windows. Just as it was perfectly normal to wear several layers of clothes topped off with a thick woolly sweater indoors and have a hot water bottle in bed.

But what of the vast majority for whom central heating is not seen as a luxury but as a necessity? Perhaps we should look abroad for some guidance or, at least, some examples of how to save energy.

The German government has turned off the lights that illuminate the Brandenburg Gate and other famous public monuments and ordered that offices in public buildings will be lit only when people are actually working in them. And when buildings are occupied, thermostats will be set no higher than 19 degrees. German politicians have said people should start having cold showers. Shops are no longer allowed to leave their doors open throughout the day and all illuminated advertising has been switched off in the evenings. In France public swimming pools are being closed. In Switzerland more than 40 public and private sector partners have come together to promote a public information campaign with the slogan: “Energy is scarce. Let’s not waste it.” It offers tips on how to reduce energy use, for instance by turning down thermostats.

There are already some indications that these modest measures might be having some effect. Germany’s dependence on Russian gas has fallen from 55% since before the war in Ukraine to 35% now. By contrast, in this country the Blackpool Illuminations were switched on last week with their usual celebrity fanfare. A million light bulbs will blaze away along six miles of the Lancashire coast until January.

The Times concedes that there has been a vacuum in government for the past two months because of the leadership campaign and that has held back the country’s ability to design and implement energy policy. But it also makes the point that the energy portfolio has been downgraded: “During previous energy crises, in the 1970s and 1980s, the secretary of state for energy was in the cabinet, and the post was held by big political beasts such as Tony Benn and Nigel Lawson. These days the portfolio is held by a mere minister of state in the business department.” Now that energy has risen to the top of the political agenda, it says, there should be a secretary of state for energy who would have the prime ministerial attention and political clout essential to managing the crisis. Part of their role would be reducing demand for energy. There should also be a “price freeze on basic use that would support moderate users while penalising extravagant ones.”

But will a public information campaign really make any difference? Here’s a small test for you. What does the slogan “hands, face, space” remind you of? Yes, of course, the covid pandemic. It was dinned into us relentlessly that we should wash our hands, wear masks and keep our distance from our fellow human beings. Most of us obeyed the instructions but that’s because we were genuinely scared of the consequences of ignoring them. We didn’t want to catch covid. The energy emergency is a crisis of a different order. Cutting our energy use is, we are told, vital not just to keep the lights on in the months and years to come but to stop prices of everything going through the roof. There’s also the small matter of allowing some pretty nasty regimes headed by Russia, who have vast energy reserves, from tightening their grips on our throats.

And yet, when a former minister like Edwina Currie suggests we should put tinfoil behind our radiators to make them more efficient she is treated as though she has proposed something outrageous. Does she not understand the terrible struggle people are going through without having to put up with her patronising preaching? Well, yes, say her supporters – and that’s precisely why she made what was first proposed many years ago and might even make a modest contribution to our energy efficiency crisis.

The columnist Alice Thomson concedes that nobody likes being lectured by nannying politicians but “companies and individuals, the rich as well as those struggling, will need to cut back their energy consumption drastically and maybe permanently until this country becomes self-sufficient. Even then it makes sense environmentally to be prudent…” Germany’s approach, she says, is already cutting gas consumption by 2.5% but their ambitious target is 20%. From next month, all owners of buildings with a gas heating system must have an efficiency check-up. Each city now has an energy crisis team and Germany’s 13,000 energy consultants are treated as rock stars, according to one German newspaper. Demand is so high that they no longer give one-to-one advice and instead pack out unheated halls and even stadiums.

But Britain is not Germany, say the campaign sceptics, and we have a different approach from the Germans to rules. We can scarcely see one without wanting to break it. It’s one of those things that make us the freedom-loving nation we have become over the centuries. But the French tend to be a bit rebellious too and, as Thomson points out, their government has not shied away from giving them their energy-saving orders.

Their prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, has told companies they must “mobilise”. Any business that has failed to draw up a savings plan by the end of the month will be first to be rationed if France runs short of gas and electricity. The state, she told them, will set an example by cutting energy use in public buildings by 10%, but consumers need to help too as countries across the continent strive to meet the European Union target of cutting gas consumption by 15%.

And now, of course we are about to have a price cap. What effect might that have on the way we use energy? Perhaps “waste” would be a better word. A third of us keep our homes heated to 25C in winter. We even heat our bedrooms even though the experts tell us we should do no more than take the chill off if we want a good night’s sleep. And, predictably, the statistics suggest it is the wealthiest who are far and away the most wasteful. The richest 10% use twenty times as much energy as the poorest.

Do you agree that there should be a national campaign to tell us how to use energy efficiently? And should it take a lead from Germany’s book by, for instance, banning unnecessary lighting in our cities? And are you prepared to lead by example? And if so … how?

Let us know

Photo: Getty

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