THE alarming rise of gas prices has many people worried as we head into winter, as more homes than ever face an impossible choice between heating and eating.

The latest figures show that 613,000 households in Scotland were in fuel poverty in 2019, a figure that will only be exacerbated by the financial fallout of the pandemic and the UK Government’s cruel decision to cut Universal Credit.

Having a warm and comfortable home is such an important part of a person’s health and wellbeing. What’s more, climate emissions from buildings were responsible for 23% of Scotland’s emissions in 2018. Both of these factors show why we are treating the decarbonisation of homes with such urgency.

So while people will need support in the short term this winter, gas will no longer be the cheaper option to heat your home. Replacing gas boilers with low carbon alternatives will be a way to reduce bills as well as tackle the climate crisis.

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In the more remote and rural parts of Scotland, including the Highlands and Islands, the prevalence of fuel poverty is higher than the national average. When you think about it, these are the parts of Scotland that are traditionally wetter and windier, a situation which is worsening because of climate breakdown. That becomes a perfect storm when you factor in a combination of higher average energy prices and lower average incomes in rural communities.

These wet and windy places can generate renewable energy, yet people who can see a wind turbine from their window are paying prices for electricity as if it is being pumped in from miles away. This is why the UK Government needs to get a grip of the energy market.

The National: Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng

Conservative Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng

Another important aspect of rural fuel poverty is that not all of these households have access to the gas network and they currently rely on the most expensive types of heating. The fact is domestic oil and LPG tanks are not a long-term sustainable solution in the climate emergency.

A key point is that in rural areas, 82% of housing is rated at Energy Performance Certificate band D or lower, compared with 59% in urban areas. That means far too many rural homes are draughty and expensive to keep warm. That’s why improving energy efficiency across the board must be a priority. I was really pleased to see that the Scottish Government’s new Heat in Buildings strategy committed to ensuring that poor energy efficiency is removed as a driver of fuel poverty, because this will reach all communities, not just those who can install heat pumps.

There is a specific mention of the distinct challenges faced by island, rural and remote communities, so I look forward to more detail about how funding will be targeted. I would like to see an approach whereby funding for and implementation prioritises the rural and island areas who are most at risk. For example, many buildings in our island communities are in need of renovation and retrofitting and I know our islands are already looking to do this.

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Investing in retrofitting is an important way to create jobs, because it is the kind of work that is very difficult to outsource offshore. Making homes efficient and cheaper to run requires work that is delivered through a mix of people with digital skills and on-site by local tradespeople. This will prove especially useful in creating local jobs for rural and island communities. Giving communities a stake in their local energy will be important too. I welcome the £3 million set aside to upgrade energy systems in Scotland’s most rural offgrid communities, making them more energy resilient and sustainable for the future. The forthcoming Islands Energy Strategy should give us more detail about how that will work.

Warm words won’t heat homes, which is why the heat and buildings strategy is the first allocation of the £1.8bn funding for net zero buildings which came out of the Scottish Greens deal which brings us into government. It includes a doubling of the funding for upgrading social housing to £200m. And we are doubling the funding for upgrading public sector buildings like hospitals and schools to £200m, lowering their climate footprint too.

Of course, councils have an important role to play too, and this was recognised in the new ‘Our Climate, Our Homes’ campaign, launched this week by the STUC, Friends of the Earth and poverty campaigners.

This campaign is right to highlight the need for councils to meet local energy needs through locally-owned energy companies. This model has worked so well across Europe because it allows for local circumstances and needs.

There are funds available for councils to provide free home improvements worth up to £14,000 to people in extreme fuel poverty, but this is a transition which will need to happen at pace across the country.

It’s clear that the solutions needed to tackle fuel poverty are the same as the ones we need to take to tackle the climate emergency and to create jobs. So, as the nights draw in, and the callous decisions of the UK Government snowball into a winter of discontent, in Scotland we need to spend smart to shelter our most vulnerable communities from the Tories’ perfect storm.