Speech to Behave Conference

Baroness Verma's speech to the Behave Conference on behaviour change and consumer engagement.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Baroness Verma

I will begin by thanking the Energy Saving Trust and the Energy Research Council for today’s very important conference.

On 16 September 1954, in a speech to the National Association of Science Writers in New York, Lewis Strauss uttered 13 words that would become infamous.

“Our children”, he predicted, “will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”

As Strauss was Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission many have taken that comment to be a prediction about the cost of nuclear energy only.

But actually, Strauss was talking about something much wider. He was talking about the onward march of science.

“[Our children]”, he went on, ”will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”

Of course to be fair to Strauss, the ingenuity of human kind has taken us great strides forward in many areas, pushing back disease, extending life, making travel common-place.

Perhaps Strauss was naïve in his optimism.

There has been nothing effortless about what has been achieved and science hasn’t yet managed to abolish the laws of economics.

Costs of energy in the UK continue to rise, we all remain concerned that energy bills pose huge worries to consumer, policy makers and government.

While technological advances have reduced the cost of many things we now rely on in our modern lives –– the holy grail of a near cost-free energy remains consistently elusive – and is likely to remain so.

The industrial revolution had a price – and continues to have a price.

A carbon price.

It is estimated that since the start of the industrial revolution 580 billion tonnes of carbon has been released into the atmosphere thanks to human activity, and consequently the planet is warming.

The science is proven. And if we continue on the same path, the consequences of our carbon-based economies are potentially catastrophic us all.

The principle scientific challenge of our age is not to make our lives ever easier – it is to maintain a planet capable of sustaining life itself, a passion and belief we should all sign up to.

Because the solution is not just about advances in the physical sciences – bringing down the costs and price of low carbon technology – in energy and transport in particular.

But a combination of good technology and lucky international politics won’t be sufficient, if people don’t think differently about energy, if we don’t change how we generate energy.

We must drive behaviour change, attitudes and response to change.

The bottom up climate change challenge, if you like.

Not a solution just handed over by technology or imposed by Governments, vital though their role is.

But a way forward that involves changing the very culture of energy.

Exploring how people can make a difference – exploring how we maximise the potential of individuals to make a difference.

And that takes us, simply, to using less energy – being energy efficient.

Creating an Energy Saving Society.

Which, in many ways, is one of our toughest challenges.

How do we alter our own society – indeed the societies of the developed and emerging economies – so people themselves direct change and their behaviour.

While the pressing challenge may be climate change, and it is the reason that many of us here do what we do, for the vast majority of people, the consumers of energy, the threat of climate change does not, alone, prompt the kind of behaviour change we need.

Just look at the UK Pulse survey published by the Energy Saving Trust last month.

Although most people see climate change as a major concern, it finds very little evidence of a strong correlation between climate change worry and taking action in the home on energy efficiency.

By far the greatest motivating factors are cost and comfort.

This is particularly true of the fuel poor.

For people in fuel poverty it is sufficiency, not efficiency, that drives action.

The research my Department published in July on the behaviours of households in fuel poverty supports this.

So we need to tailor the appeal to change.

It’s the bill, the running costs of appliances, the draughts, the mould and the damp – these are the things that will prompt action.

Home improvement. Being in control of the household budget. Being comfortable.

This is what we need to tap into to help people change their behaviour.

Who the message comes from, who is trusted, is extremely important.

What people want is advice they can trust, from consumer groups who they perceive are working in their interests or experts who can give them the facts.

What they want is proof that it works, by talking to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues who have had good experiences.

What they want is information and financial incentives that are easy to understand and easy to access.

Creating an energy saving society – making change happen – has to be in the interests of us all.

Government, at all levels, working with industry and business, with scientists and academics, with consumer groups and the media, with community groups and local champions.

How do we work together to create an Energy Saving Society.

Government can set the policy framework, offer incentives and regulate to make the process of change easier.

And that is what successive Governments in the UK have done, domestically – and at EU level.

Let’s just take regulation – for less wasteful electrical appliances to more fuel efficient cars.

By 2020 annual net savings to the UK economy from energy efficiency standards and labelling will be over £850m a year reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7 million tonnes per year.

And much of this efficiency is unseen by consumers, because it’s inbuilt in their purchasing decisions.

And regulation like this drives innovation, and makes things better.

Take the recent misunderstanding on energy efficiency regulations for vacuum cleaners.

Greater power doesn’t necessarily mean better cleaning.

Only 25% of the energy used in vacuum cleaners is converted to cleaning power – the rest is wasted in heat.

So a more efficient vacuum can still clean just as well – it’s just less wasteful.

The EU regulations put in place energy efficiency standards and a minimum standard for cleaning performance.

For example, the energy consumption of the average fridge bought today is around half that of one bought at the turn of the century in 2000.

Is food any less chilled? Of course not – the products are just better.

Regulation can only go so far – restricting the sale of the most wasteful products.

But people still need a choice and manufacturers still need to compete for business.

So how do we help people take the next step and actively choose the most energy saving product – whose running costs will save them money over the life of the product.

My department’s recent trial with John Lewis – published today - has shown that lifetime cost labelling of electrical products has the potential to change behaviour.

John Lewis intend to continue this work, rolling out labelling across their stores and to other appliances, adapting their model for online shopping as well as store bought point of sale.

They also intend to provide annual running cost information rather than just lifetime costs.

The EU is heading towards a new labelling directive and this kind of work work will shape their conclusions on how to be clearer to people on energy ratings.

And there is a lot of other work taking place, not least by our hosts Energy Saving Trust and the UK Energy Research Council that I’m sure you will be hearing about today.

Government are regulating on the basis of sound behavioural science, knowing that that is part of the answer.

But it will take business and civil society embracing change and pressing for change for an energy saving society to take off.

Let’s just take a successful model for instance - food labelling.

It has been brands and chains embracing the healthy eating and the labelling concept that has driven the change we see in our shops and supermarkets.

Packaging demonstrating content, providing customers with a choice.

How often have you seen a food brand marketing itself as low salt, or high fibre or one of your 5 a day?

Now think how often you have seen a fridge, washing machine or lighting system marketed as the most energy friendly, efficient and cost saving?

How can we encourage the DIY, white goods and electronic stores to embrace energy efficiency and put it front and centre of their displays and advice?

Maybe we need to do an equivalent of a 5 a day campaign for energy saving.

Not driven by Government, but by consumers groups, trusted sources, product marketing itself.

Something that helps people think about their energy use every day and make practical changes – to save themselves money.

Of course there are big permanent savings, in both carbon and cash, that can be made by these one off actions taken by the customer.

Getting a new boiler, double glazing, insulation – the kind of home improvement action that the Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation are designed to help achieve.

Creating a market place for energy efficiency.

Over 450,000 homes have already received combined Green Deal and ECO measures. By 2020 bills will be around £166 lower than had we left ourselves to global price shocks.

That is why the Green Deal Communities concept is so important. Working with natural communities to effect change.

Of course there are hard to reach consumers and hard to reach sectors – not least in the private rented sector, where many the incentives need to be properly aligned to prompt action.

DECC is working closely with four Green Deal Community Local Authorities each awarded an additional £2m to undertake Private Rented Sector pilots.

This should help enable my Department to better understand how we can incentivise and encourage private landlords and their tenants to improve the energy efficiency of their properties.

Making savings for themselves and their tenants – making their properties more marketable, more desirable, easier to rent, cheaper to maintain.

Let’s talk about the 5 a day concept.

How do we help people make everyday behavioural changes that saves them money, and reduces energy use without compromising comfort or warmth?

Some examples?

Line dry when possible rather than tumble dry.

If you have a dishwasher, don’t put it on till its full – and use the eco setting.

Turn off the radiators in unused rooms.

Switch off lights and other electrical appliance when you don’t need them on.

Only fill the kettle with as much water as you need - my husband reminded me of that one this morning!

Small things you may think. Things you already do. But sadly, not everybody does.

A third of people continue to heat rooms they don’t use regularly. A fifth of us leave the heating on when we go out for a few hours.

Of course, this sort of action to keep bills down and be efficient, is old-fashioned. But this value of thrift, it is cold comfort for the most vulnerable in fuel poverty.

Those who really struggle to keep warm in winter.

For them it’s those one off inputs I talked about, accessed through the Green Deal and ECO that can make the biggest difference.

And of course the Winter Fuel Payment and Warm Homes Discount takes money off their bills too.

Of course it is always difficult to tell exactly how much each household could save with thrift measures – the 5 a day behaviour change.

Research suggests that households who adopt this 5 a day routine could knock over £100 off their annual bill – and this could mean as much as £10 off your monthly direct debit.

And with the roll out of smart meters, this kind of everyday energy saving becomes more visible and therefore worthwhile to people.

The behaviour changes that smart meters have the potential to unlock could be profound.

Through the in-home display people will be able to track their energy usage in near real time.

They will be able to see what in their homes is making up their energy costs and experiment with lifestyle changes to bring bills down.

They will be able to switch suppliers more easily and choose tariffs that suit their lifestyle - keeping the energy suppliers rightly on their toes and driving better customer service.

Consumers will own their data for the first time, and be empowered to explore and take up a range of innovative products and services that the rollout will provide a platform for.

From home energy management to applying the data to other areas, such as wellness and home security monitoring. The Smart Meters Programme is bringing the digital revolution to energy.

And I hope it will have the same life changing effect that has happened in communications over the last decade.

As part of the Smart Meter Programme almost a million smart meters have already been installed in homes and small businesses across Great Britain.

And with Smart Energy GB now providing an independent and trusted source of information on Smart Meters, we have a campaigning organisation primed to support the process as energy suppliers replace 53 million meters by 2020.

And these energy customers who now have a smart meter are already telling us how these meters are making a difference today.

From the peace of mind of knowing their bill is accurate, to the energy bill savings they can make, by knowing what is wasting energy in their homes.

Seeing the costs of your energy come down without sacrificing warmth or comfort.

But as we discussed earlier, this sort of 5 a day campaign has to be at grass roots.

It can’t be regulated for, imposed by Government, or the subject of lecturing by politicians.

It’s for civil society, consumer groups, businesses to get out there and effect change every day.

Of course there are many other energy saving and cost savings tips that many of you who run consumer groups advocate.

And I regularly see in the consumer media, article and tips on energy saving.

We have several pointers already in place.

Now is really the time to act.


We are at the end of summer. The nights are beginning to draw in. It won’t be long before the clocks go back and there is a nip in the air.

Indeed, last week’s cold, wet bank holiday may have begun to focus minds on the winter ahead.

So my Department will be doing its bit to help people stay warm and keep costs down.

The rebate we negotiated with the energy companies last year will be reaching people’s bills next month.

And we have a programme of activity planned over the next few months designed to effect behaviour change

From promoting switching to improving help and guidance, from pushing energy saving in the home, to pushing take up of the Green Deal.

And I’m pleased that that many in civil society are gearing up to our message – that there is help out there.

You can take control.

You can stay warm and keep costs down.

You can save energy, just like your friends and neighbours.

Improving your home.

Improving your quality of life.

And this message needs to ring loud and clear from all quarters of society if we are going to affect the change we need.

I hope that today – as part of this conference – new innovative ways of reaching people are discussed.

And that we then get out there and continue to change attitudes.

We know that if we are proactive in showing the benefits of changing attitudes towards a cleaner, more efficient world, on that enables cost benefits as well as opening doors to new approaches, we will see…

A new campaign spring to life.

A campaign to create the energy saving Britain we all want to see.

Thank you.

Published 3 September 2014
Last updated 3 September 2014 + show all updates
  1. Updated with transcript.
  2. First published.