Sunday, May 04, 2008

Time to deal with fuel poverty

The Sunday Star-Times reports that almost half a million New Zealanders (mostly in the South Island) are in "fuel poverty" and struggling to keep their homes warm enough. No doubt DPF will dismiss this as another communist statistical trick, but it is a real problem, with real effects. Cold and damp homes lead to illness and death. A 2006 study showed that cold weather kills 1600 people a year - more people than die in car accidents. While some of these deaths are unavoidable, a significant percentage are due to inadequate heating and could easily be prevented. And we should be doing something about it.

Currently, the government spends a derisory amount on this problem - $5.4 million a year to improve insulation, plus a $4 million programme to upgrade state houses. This despite the fact that studies have shown that increased spending is worth it for the health benefits alone. It's also massively out of line with other programmes aimed at preventing deaths - we spend around $227 million a year on a highly successful campaign to prevent ~350 road deaths a year ($650,000 per life), while just last week the government announced it would spend $30 million a year vaccinating young women against cervical cancer, a move that would prevent around 30 deaths a year ($1 million per life). If we valued the lives of those who die due to cold at remotely the same level, this would suggest spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Fortunately, we don't need to spend anywhere near that much. EECA's insulation program insulates about 5,000 houses a year at a cost of ~$1,000 a house. And insulation directly reduces hospitalisations and deaths. Massively expanding this programme and targeting the 180,000 mostly South Island homes suffering from fuel poverty would cost a pittance comparatively speaking, but would have significant and lasting effects on people's health (most directly, by them not dying). And a Labour government should be doing that - if only because such revenue recycling will give them a solid answer to the emerging concerns about the cost of climate change policy.