Remember the ‘Creature Comforts’ TV advertisements from the 1990s, created by the animator Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame? They’re to blame for UK climate change emissions.
Well, at least in part anyway.
Take a look at the ads here:
They aired in the years just after Britain’s gas and electricity supply networks were privatised.
The old Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) was sold off and its power stations fell into private ownership. The previously state-owned regional electricity boards also became privately owned Regional Electricity Companies or RECs with their own shareholders, including ordinary people, and the same happened to the former gas boards.
Shareholders everywhere were expecting a bonanza.
Only, it turns out there was a snag. The amount of money these new companies could make from selling gas and power to homeowners and businesses was subject to a regulatory cap.
So, if they couldn’t put up prices – and therefore profits – how else were they going to deliver increasing shareholder returns?
Simple. By selling us more.
In the case of the RECs, they set about selling us all manner of gadgets and appliances that would drive demand and therefore profits. Norweb, in North West England, was particularly aggressive in this regard: for example, it bought the high street electricals retailer, Rumbelows, rebranded it Norweb Retail, and then set out on a building spree that saw it throw up large out-of-town retail ‘sheds’ all over the region and beyond, stocked with power-consuming goods that would add extra load to the network and boost profits in its regulated business.
It also formed a division called Power Marketing, with hundreds of staff whose job it was to sell electrical equipment to businesses and electrical heating, in particular, to local authorities and housing associations for use in social housing.
And so we arrive at the Creature Comforts advertisements. The RECs knew that they needed to get homeowners to invest in electric space and water heating to really lift power demand, but they also knew they were up against a formidable competitor – gas central heating. So they embarked on an ad campaign to convince us that electric heating was every bit as “on and off-able” as gas and that it could create the same feeling of comfortable living.
Look what happened.
Between 1970 and 1979, the average amount of electricity supplied every year was 254,261 GWh. Between 1980 and 1989 it averaged 270,604 GWh – so for two decades it averaged 262,432 GWh per year.
But in the ten years from 1990 (when privatisation occurred) the average leapt to 317,749 GWh a year – that’s up 55,317 GWh on the previous two decades where demand was relatively static.
Even using a figure of 332 tonnes of CO2 per GWh of electricity (carbon intensity of the grid) in 2015, that 55,317 GWh of extra demand stoked by the RECs would be responsible for 18,365,244 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Of course, in reality, it would be much higher than this because we didn’t have anywhere near the same amount of low-carbon power from renewables in the mix in the 1990s that we do now.
I don’t really blame Nick ParkÂ and his Creature Comfort ads for climate change.
The blame lies partly at the feet of the RECs who drove demand for electricity in order to raise income and generate attractive returns for shareholders.
But, in truth, the blame also lies with us as consumers. The RECs and their marketing may have sparked it (pun intended) but it’s us with our continuing thirst for power-consuming gadgets, appliances and devices that has kept that demand going ever since.
If we’re to get serious about cutting CO2 emissions, then as well as technology solutions like coal-to-gas switching alongside renewables and new nuclear, and Carbon Capture and Storage, and Hydrogen networks, and electric vehicles, we need to get serious about behaviour change too.
Do you agree? Should we be doing more to curb demand? Should subsidies be transferred away from building new generating capacity to finding ways of cutting use and balancing demand? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.