How welfare and employment policy impacts energy demand

welfare and energy

Catherine Butler of the University of Exeter looks at the links between the issues of welfare and energy demand for government policies in ‘non-energy’ areas

welfare and energy

The majority of the world’s governments are committed to taking action to reduce global warming following the COP21 agreement in 2016. Mitigating climate change is recognised as requiring deep reductions in energy demand, in addition to the more commonly discussed need to move away from fossil fuel dependency. At the same time, problems of energy poverty, vulnerability and access to energy represent equally important issues for those concerned with transitions in energy demand.

Cross government role in shaping energy policy

When it comes to understanding the role of government and policy in shaping, affecting and addressing these challenges, much of the focus is on energy policy. Yet there are multiple other less immediately obvious areas where government policy makes a significant contribution to shaping energy demand problems and the possibilities for addressing them.

The research we have been undertaking looks at welfare and employment policy to examine the ways that government policy far beyond energy per se has implications for our needs and for issues (such as fuel poverty) that are generally only considered within departments with direct responsibilities in this area. 

‘Invisible Energy Policy’

Just about all of us use energy every day, and we do this in order to carry out the established practices that make up our lives. The way we cook, work, travel around, shop, entertain ourselves, keep ourselves clean and warm, all affect the amount of energy we need to use. While many of these practices may feel set in stone, they are in fact in a constant state of flux and change significantly from one decade to another. The policies, strategies and processes the government develops, the issues they focus on, and where they direct public money can have a major effect on these social practices.

There is a growing awareness that most government departments – whether they are perceived as being overtly relevant to energy or not – make decisions that impact on energy issues. These are known as ‘invisible energy’ or ‘non-energy’ policy decisions. The DEMAND Centre project entitled ‘Welfare, Employment and Energy Demand’ is looking at how government policy in this area impacts on energy use and the nature of energy issues. By looking at this policy area, the project identifies key ways that non-energy policy has implications for energy issues, needs, and associated vulnerabilities.

Welfare and energy

As a first example, non-energy policies have direct forms of influence. In the case of welfare policies, one aspect that has direct implications for energy poverty concerns on-going reforms that impact on people’s abilities to meet their energy needs. In particular, reforms to welfare support for working age disabled people and unemployed people can be highlighted. Under new definitions of fuel poverty, which aim to focus attention on those with high costs and low income, these two groups have been identified as particularly vulnerable. Yet they are also groups that have been heavily affected by contemporary welfare reforms. In this instance, activity in one non-energy policy area (welfare) is having direct effects on abilities to address energy policy goals of reducing – or eradicating – fuel poverty.

Digitalisation agenda

A second example relates to the role of cross-departmental agendas to which different policy areas contribute; some of which can have major implications for energy demand. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which has responsibility for welfare and employment, has a section named DWP Digital that explicitly aims to support and develop digitalisation. One facet of this wider cross-departmental government agenda to advance the ‘information society’ involves the digitalisation of the welfare system, generating need for digital access for 22 million people that use the welfare system in some way (e.g. through pensions, child benefit, unemployment support) (DWP Digital, 2016). This, in turn, contributes to growing need for and use of computing technologies and the Internet, with associated requirements for energy use. While, on the one hand, digital technologies have been identified as representing an increasing proportion of household energy demand, and as the fastest growing area of global energy demand (DECC, 2015), on the other hand, they are actively promoted by multiple departments as part of wider agendas.

Welfare policy, housing trends, and effects for energy demand

The final example concerns how different non-energy related policies shape long-term trajectories of social and material change that affect what is possible or not within energy policy, as well as influencing energy demand in positive or negative ways. Over time welfare policy has had a major impact on the material nature of UK housing (e.g. development of dense terraced housing), and the social make-up of ownership. Housing in the UK has been developed along a trajectory that saw high levels of social housing built predominantly for the working classes. This has meant smaller, dense, terraced housing becoming a norm for much of the UK housing stock, contrasting with trends toward bigger detached forms of housing as the norm for many other countries. These long-term historical trends in housing development can be seen as having had positive impacts for contemporary energy needs in the UK.

Welfare policy has also had impacts on the social trends relating to home ownership, which, in turn, affect the possibilities and challenges for contemporary energy policy. The ‘right to buy’ policy and on-going trends toward reducing levels of social housing mean that over time private owner-occupied homes have become the norm in the UK. In energy policy terms, the privately owned section of the housing market is considered politically challenging. This is exemplified by a reticence on the part of government to implement regulation and other policies designed to reduce the energy intensity of the housing stock in this sphere, particularly the owner occupied market. This contrasts with social housing where abilities to implement retrofit schemes to housing have been greater and much more successful. In this way welfare policies over time relating to housing have played (and continue to play) a significant role in shaping current energy needs and setting the context for current energy policy.  

Policy and practical interventions intended to influence energy demand issues are interacting with multiple other forms of change, past and present. While not true of all issues, the pervasive nature of energy use as part of everyday lives means that this is one area where it is important to examine policy and governance far beyond those areas more obviously related to energy if we are to understand its impact and develop trajectories toward socially just transitions.  

The Welfare, Employment and Energy Demand project is an example of the work being done by the End Use Energy Demand Centres to gain a deeper understanding of all the factors that create energy demand and influence energy justice to be able to advise on the best ways to reduce it while also addressing other social issues.


Read more at the Welfare, Employment and Energy Demand project site.

Dr Catherine Butler is Principle Investigator for the Welfare, Employment, and Energy Demand project and is based at the University of Exeter in the Department of Geography.

Photo credit: By Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons