Rising gas prices in a climate emergency is not the time for the rigid application of free-market principles
There is a level of government complacency about energy price shocks. Ministers think the best course of action is to just accept them. Wholesale gas prices are now more than five times their level two years ago, raising the prospect that household bills will rise by 12% next month. Shoppers could also face empty supermarket shelves as it becomes unprofitable to produce the dry ice and carbon dioxide needed to store meat products. If the energy crunch continues, industry warns, a 1970s-style three-day week might have to be introduced.
The government response has been familiar: deny the problem, deflect responsibility for failure and delay taking action. This strategy is a reminder of the importance of perceptions in a crisis. If something feels like a crisis, it is effectively a crisis. That is why perhaps Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, says there is “no question of the lights going out, of people being unable to heat their homes”. But what if people cannot afford the energy costs to heat and light their homes? About 85% of the UK’s domestic heating comes from natural gas. Fuel poverty is a real issue, especially when millions of workers are facing cuts to universal credit and a hike in national insurance. Price caps help poorer people afford necessities of life such as gas – but there’s no sign that ministers think the hardship merits more generous help.