Insulate Britain. Wrong targets. Right demands.

Listening to Boris Johnson make his conference speech, as inverted a pyramid of piffle as any he has made; anyone would think 72% of young people in the UK were not afraid of the future, and almost two in five planning not to have children because climate breakdown means that they would be bringing them into a world that will be nightmarish by the time they are adults.

Barely addressing the climate crisis – for what could he say -and skidding swiftly over thin ice – as he tends to do – he tickled a few reliable rabid reflexes of the Tory faithful instead.

No reflection at all on the gravity of the situation, the impacts that are already hitting home. That there has been more disruption to normal traffic from flash floods in the last couple of months than from the actions of Insulate Britain. Yet we have no reflection on the former, just a little dig at the latter.

And no comment – of course – on the government’s abject failure to retrofit the leakiest, draftiest, most expensive to heat homes in Europe. They have tried twice since 2010, and failed ignominiously both times. And they currently have no plan at all.

Insulate Britain have two demands.

1. That the UK government immediately promises to fully fund and take responsibility for the insulation of all social housing in Britain by 2025

2. That the UK government immediately promises to produce within four months a legally binding national plan to fully fund and take responsibility for the full low-energy and low-carbon whole-house retrofit , with no externalised costs, of all homes in Britain by 2030 as part of a just transition to full decarbonisation of all parts of society and the economy.

This is because, as they put it

The UK has some 29 million homes and they are the oldest and least energy efficient housing stock in Europe. Every year vast amounts of precious energy are wasted in heating and, increasingly, cooling our buildings. 

In order to meet UK commitments under the Paris Agreement to stay below 1.5C, and legal obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008, as amended in 2019, emissions from heating and powering homes must be reduced by 78% in less than 15 years and then to zero by 2050. 

​Nearly 15% of the UK’s total emissions comes from heating homes: an overhaul of the energy performance of the UK’s housing stock is needed to reduce the energy demand.

The UK needs a nation-wide programme to upgrade almost every house. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) 2018 report, Scaling Up Retro fit 2050, advises that nearly every home in the UK needs to be upgraded with energy efficiency measures. That is 1.5 homes per minute to the year 2050.

Any government serious about the scale and urgency of the climate crisis would be doing this already.

People supergluing themselves to motorways is a desperate measure for desperate times, coming from a justified anxiety that the scale of the response from a blustering and blithering government is completely out of whack with the scale of the problem. People not in denial about the implications of “code red for humanity”- and alarmed by it – will increasingly take actions that disrupt the flow of normality. Because it is “normality” that is stoking the crisis. As the Dennis Price character says in Kind Hearts and Coronets: “The prospect of impending execution concentrates the mind wonderfully”.

The problem is that action directed at people just trying to get by in someone else’s world annoys them directly and gives those responsible for the crisis a way to divert anger at it onto the people trying to change it; thereby diverting attention from their failure to deal with it and giving them a chance to bring in more repressive legislation directed at protest, with the general public cheering on the restriction of their own rights. The Conservatives are very practiced at this.

Polling indicates overwhelming support for insulating homes, but equally overwhelming condemnation for the actions. YouGov Polls show 53% have an unfavourable view of IB, with just 16% favourable. The scale of this varies from a 7:1 unfavourable view from Conservative voters to a 2:1 unfavourable view among Labour and Lib Dem voters; just over 4:1 among over 65s and 2:1 among 18-24 year olds. YouGov put their questions about the protests first, and the issue second – just so everyone can be prompted in the most negative way. In a local poll in Newbury Today framed as “Would you take tougher legal action against the Insulate Britain environmental protesters” 87% voted “Yes, their tactics are too disruptive to the public” and just 11% “No, they are fighting to save our planet”. The framing of the narrative is the “Eco mob” vs you and me. Anyone arrested at a protest who has ever driven a diesel vehicle or cooked with gas is gleefully “exposed” as a “hypocrite” in the written lynch mob tactics the tabloids have honed to perfection over the years.

The issue here is that the initial framing of XR’s direct, peaceful disruptive action strategy was that it was designed to be disruptive enough to make the powers that be accede to their demands as a easier option than carrying on with business as usual. This always over estimated the potential for this and under estimated the determination of the ruling class to keep their show on the road even as they began to see that it is running over a cliff. However, even this strategy was contingent on the generation of mass support. The tactics deployed therefore needed to be carefully chosen, so that mass sympathy for the issue could be further generated by the example of the sacrifice of the people carrying out the actions. The actions of the most conscious, determined and disciplined people had to act as a catalyst for mass pressure in the right direction. A misjudged action – like the attempt to stop the tube at Canning Town in November 2019, which led commuters to physically attack protestors – acts as a catalyst for reaction.

Action to insulate homes is a priority. For reducing carbon emissions. For creating jobs. For cutting bills. It is being blocked by a government unwilling to invest in it. As a demand it has mass support. The question for the whole movement is how to mobilise that support in campaigning on a mass enough scale to make continued delay politically impossible.

2 thoughts on “Insulate Britain. Wrong targets. Right demands.

  1. Living in a democracy, as we do, where a door step promise is expected to faithfully repay our personal political needs for the next five years it is sometimes alarming to contemplate that there are others that find the ear of the government far more easily. I have been concerned quite recently more than once to have heard reference to a civil service (I assume) department that advises H.M. Government on how to influence the population. Straight out of 1984, this department uses psychological methods to determine how the population might be influenced to act in a certain way. This might be how to make them buy diesel cars and then after a U turn, how to stop them. My issue is that this department is not elected and the methods used are not up for scrutiny. Nor are they in any way a response to my particular wishes. The idea of insulating homes is all very laudible and I an rather sorry that successive governments do not get more credit for the better standards that are already set for new build properties. However, the Department for Social Influence is going to have its work cut out as it seeks to influence social attitudes to our abodes – particularly with regard to keeping them warm. Some years ago I looked into improving the insulation is my 1980s build bungalow, only to find that uprated cavity wall insulation was rendered impossible by what passed for cavity wall insulation in the 80s – a few sheets of ineffectual polystyrene randomly placed between the inner and outer bricks. I have a friend who lives in a Norfolk sea side town where, unsurprisingly the Victorian era building has blessed the place with many properties that have no cavity wall at all. It is an alrming fact that if we are to tackle home insulation we are in fact looking at having to tear down most of our older properties and replace them with new. Or perhaps build a complete outer shell around them. Unfortunately, at the same time comes scientific evidence that the building industry in general is a major contributor to global warming. So I am hoping that the boffins at the Department of Social Influence will get to work, and get us to start behaving as we did 50 years ago when the lack of central heating meant keeping warm was as simple as wearing layers of clothes and being active.


    1. The briefing I had about the COP was that its the government delegations that matter. Business has the highest level of access. NGOs come next. Trade Unions last. I’ve just been reading the government’s Net Zero Strategy and what is beginning to strike me about it is that it is clearly written by highly intelligent civil servants with a detailed grasp of their brief, who tailor their messages to the political predilections of the government, but occasionally slip something sensible in in the hope that the Minsters (some of whom don’t read long and complex documents and rely on bullet pointed summaries) won’t notice and they can get on with working on it. The nudge unit document – which had some useful proposals about trying to reduce meat consumption and discourage air travel – didn’t get through. A pity in my view. Insulation is a huge challenge – and its been messed up twice since 2010. Where I live, an insulation company did a number of the houses down the hill. They seem to have used the same technique as Thurrock Council, which did the remaining council houses on my parents road. I don’t know the details, but to look at it seems to be a variant on the outer shell method you speculate about. The houses that have ben done look fatter. At present, the tiny amount of work being done has the sector at full stretch because there aren’t enough skilled workers to do the job. All the same, some of that work is quite inspired. There’s a company in South Wales called SERO that has software to plan retrofitting for whole estates taking in the variations in each house and scheduling work so it is done most effectively and efficiently. Shape of things to come if we can scale it up. Part of this I think is the training given the workers who will need to do this work. Part of the course should be on the climate crisis, so they see their job as more than a job, as a mission which gives them a certain inner drive (like the medieval masons who carved the wall facing features of gargoyles because even though none of the congregation would see it, God would) and social standing and kudos akin to that given to soldiers in war time.


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