Warmth for everybody

It appears I’m the newest addition to Green Voices. I had meant to write myself a proper introduction, and explain why I joined the Greens back in ’02 and why I remain a member, but that might wait til the next post.

The insulation debate is raging however (at The Standard and elsewhere), and it’s a topic close to my heart. I’ve already written at length about why I care about this policy, and why it is such a good idea to do something about it.

National are planning on scrapping the insulation fund won from Labour by the Greens, and are likely to be successful. There are a number of reasons why, and a number of things that should be done.

Labour promised $1 billion over 15 years for insulation of houses. This was a relatively small annual amount (especially when compared to the many billions spent on new roads). It was introduced at such a late stage that few people have yet been affected, and have much emotional stake in keeping it. Furthermore, it was not widely targeted, meaning that most voters even if they were aware, were going to think of it as ‘something somebody else will get the benefit from’, especially as it was something that would not affect most renters due to uptake for landlords being voluntary. A textbook example of a good idea legislated badly.

The Greens had been trying to convince the Govt to introduce real support for insulation since 1999, and were consistently brushed off. The fund was a hard fought concession during ETS negotiations, and something that the Government had little desire to implement, and it shows in the design of the policy. A wasted opportunity.

The policy won from Labour only affected ‘low income’ NZers, and left much of the rest of the population out in the cold, literally. They saw little or no benefit, and this may have contributed to the perception that the last Labour Government was one that was interested in ‘other people’ and not in their interest. Research has shown that even moderate and high income earners live in cold houses and defer investment in insulation over other spending.

The election demonstrated that the Greens are currently failing in their targeting of a large number of electorates. A universal scheme is needed, and Green insulation policy could be used to create purchase with these communities. If the policy is to be as successful as it needs to be, and a potential election issue, it must be visible to the wider population, especially ‘non-core’ potential Green voters.

So what to do? To some extent these suggestions are already being followed, so it’s really a question of emphasis. Talk about having every home in NZ warm, dry, and insulated. Every one. That people should not have to go overseas to be comfortable. Talk about saving hundreds of dollars from winter power bills. Talk about having healthy children. Talk about having some of the coldest houses in the OECD, and that how people in Norway, Sweden, Germany and Canada live with much colder winters but enjoy warm and dry houses. Lowering emissions is important of course, but people living in cold houses need to have a message that emphasises their own experiences first and foremost. It would be a popular policy. The Greens need to win at least 10% in the next election, and policies like this one will help get those 300,000+ voters.

There are a number of implementation mechanisms, but far as I’ve been able to tell, the most successful practice internationally has been low or zero interest loans for homeowners living in their own homes (Worldchanging has an article well worth reading). These allow people to purchase immediately, enjoy the benefits while they pay it off, and the Government wears only the cost of foregone interest. The loans can also be tied to the property, so that the next owner takes over the loan. This allows the Government to offer it to everybody, as the cost is much lower than full or partial subsidies, and the resulting gain in political capital is large. A scheme that benefits the great majority of the population is much harder to scrap. The amount paid back can even be linked to the amount saved in power/gas bills, allowing it to be marketed as zero cost. The Labour-negotiated policy mandated full subsidies for low income earners, and limited interest rebates for middle income earners. The orientation of the scheme should be changed and limits scrapped or taken much higher.

The same loans should be offered to rental owners, but these should be accompanied with a phased in requirement to insulate, as uptake is likely to be too slow or patchy otherwise. Many will insulate and make houses efficient, but some will see no commercial advantage in doing so and will need encouragement. These might form a vocal minority, but this is a policy worth fighting for. (And backing down only encourages opponents, rather than dampening their resolve)

A higher standard for new housing would also help, but only around 1% of housing annually is new, so this takes a long time to see any real impact and should be considered as separate to this policy. Improving the existing housing stock must be the priority.

I’d also like to see the idea of low/zero interest loans extended to other bright ideas, but that can wait for another post!