Leading Article: A wasted chance to save energy

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The Independent Online
AS SOFT spring weather arrives, interest in conserving energy begins to wane. Perhaps that is why the Government felt it could be quite so brazen in destroying Alan Beith's widely supported energy-saving Bill using an old fashioned filibuster last Friday. This private member's Bill would have compelled councils to assess energy wastage in homes, both rented and owner-occupied, then draw up plans to increase efficiency. Properly conducted, these surveys would have given every household a rough outline of how much fuel they were consuming, how much pollution was being produced, and what scope there was for curbing wastage.

Home energy consumption accounts for about one fifth of the pollutants which cause smog and acid rain, still more of those which may cause man-made global warming. Start-up costs would have been modest, about pounds 1 a household, even with repeat surveys required to update a nationwide database.

So shame on the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, and the Government for crushing a reasonable and imaginative Bill - the more so since their own energy conservation policies are in a muddle. Britain is committed by international treaty to cut back annual emissions of carbon dioxide to their 1990 level by 2000. The Government says reducing wastage of coal, oil and gas will play a crucial part in meeting that commitment. Yet its new Energy Saving Trust, created to fund energy-saving projects and campaigns in partnership with the utilities, is in danger of strangulation at birth.

The trust's main source of funds was to have been a small extra charge on the bills of all electricity and gas customers. The electricity industry regulator says the trust and the utilities can raise limited funds in this way ( pounds 1 a year per home) but the gas industry regulator says they can raise none.

The Government is left relying on two sticks and a curious carrot. The sticks are 17.5 per cent VAT on domestic fuel and the promise to raise motor fuel duties by at least 5 per cent each year. With energy prices tending to fall and demand being fairly inelastic, these taxes will benefit the exchequer far more than the environment.

The carrot is the home energy efficiency scheme, which grants up to pounds 250 for insulation and draughtproofing measures for anyone on state benefits or over 60. It is both too generous (to well-off yet eligible pensioners) and too mean, for pounds 250 will make little difference to fuel savings in most homes.

The Beith Bill would have provided something more effective: information. Only if informed about it can people be expected to take responsibility for the subtle damage they do to nature and human health in polluting the atmosphere.