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New research reveals how the cost-of-living crisis is being made worse by climate breakdown

Scientists have found that a rapid transition to new food and energy systems as part of an acceleration towards net-zero would leave UK households thousands of pounds better off.

Solar panel installation
Kristian Buus / 1010 Climate Action on Wikimedia Commons.

A comprehensive new report from a group of cross-disciplinary scientists has shown how the cost-of-living crisis in the UK is intrinsically linked to the climate crisis, and that political inaction on climate is pushing up households' costs dramatically.

The landmark paper debunks a narrative being put forward by some senior government ministers that suggests we need to tackle the cost-of-living crisis before the climate crisis, and that is currently being used as justification to stall or even row back on green policies.

It's been produced by climate science charity Scientists Warning Europe, a group which puts forward science-backed solutions for a just transition to a more sustainable and equitable future, and was authored by Dr Paul Behrens, an expert in environmental change at Leiden University.

The group say that the government's stated goals in the King's Speech to "ease the cost of living for families" while supporting "the future licensing of new oil and gas fields" are "entirely incompatible".

"We have known for many years that the burning of fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases which lead to heating of our planet and a worsening of the climate crisis," said Prof Chris Rhodes, a board member of the group.

"What Dr Behrens reveals is that, as climate change worsens, it is aggravating the cost-of-living crisis and will continue to add to its intensification in the coming years. Therefore, the expansion of oil and gas extraction contradicts any intention to ease the cost of living for the British public."

The 51-page report reveals how the failure to transition the UK's energy sector away from oil and gas at a speed and scale to match the crisis has had a detrimental effect on household bills, with prices soaring as a result of our continued reliance on fossil fuels. Other connections identified include higher food prices as a result of more frequent crop failures. As a significant importer of food, the UK is more exposed than most countries to climate impacts overseas.

Other future impacts that could make people poorer include infrastructure being out of action more frequently as a result of extreme weather events, and rising costs to the NHS due to flooding, heatwaves and new novel diseases reaching the UK as the country warms.

Data from the Centre for Cities shows that inflation in Sheffield reached 10.7% in March 2023, but wages in the city only rose by an average of 5.7% in the year up to January 2023. This left the city's workers £93 a month poorer in January on average than they were a year ago.

Scientists Warning Europe estimate that the impact of climate breakdown on the cost-of-living will be most keenly felt by the lowest income groups in the UK. "These groups spend a larger percentage of their total income on basic goods such as food – goods that are most exposed to climate risks and price increases," states the report.

But the document also shows how rapidly expanded and accelerated measures to mitigate and adapt to climate breakdown could have the reverse effect, yielding "substantial economic returns" for the UK and bringing households bills down in the long-term.

Based on economic modelling and a robust review of climate impact assessments, the report recommends systemic interventions in a number of areas including food, energy, health and infrastructure. But it also warns that if insufficient action is taken, these complex systems are at risk of complete collapse, inflicting hardship on millions across the UK.

"The evidence is clear: fast-tracking climate mitigation not only reduces the risks and impact of climate change but also gives us a practical pathway for significant economic returns," said Tash Morgan-Etty of Scientists Warning Europe. "It’s a win-win for everyone in the UK. If we want a safe and thriving future, there’s no reason not to implement the necessary strategies immediately."

The group say that a rapid transition to a new food system "has the potential to reduce food costs while improving climate resilience, health outcomes, and saving land."

"Shifts to healthy diets in the UK could free an area almost the size of Scotland," the report continues. "Farmers could be paid to use land for flood adaptation, carbon sequestration, biodiversity protection, and public access to nature for further benefits."

Unnamed

Work being carried out to reduce the flood risk to homes at Rudyard Mews, Hillsborough.

Sheffield City Council.

The scientists also say that a rapid energy system transition by 2050 would save the UK "billions of pounds" compared to a slower transition by 2070. "There is an academic consensus that the energy transition offers the greatest economic opportunity this century, would create jobs, and would insulate the public from fluctuations in energy prices, lowering inflation and limiting increases in the costs of living," states the report.

Estimates by other researchers suggest that the average UK household would save somewhere between £400 and £6,000 cumulatively by 2050 through a net-zero transition, and that GDP would by 2 to 3% higher than it would be otherwise.

The research undermines efforts by some Tory MPs to link climate action with falling living standards – members of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group have falsely said that a move to net-zero would make working people "colder and poorer" in an anonymous briefing to the Guardian.

Report author Dr Behrens said that many of the systemic changes the government needs to make to lessen the impact of the cost-of-living crisis while addressing climate breakdown have already been recommended by the UK Climate Change Committee. He also called for more research into the benefits of rapid transition for households.

"There is an urgency for further modelling to assess additional economic benefits of expedited transition by 2040 and even 2030," he said. "We knew the risks. We now know the possibilities. We just need to move faster to take advantage of them."

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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