Boris Johnson should intervene urgently to start insulating British homes and introduce fiscal policies to reduce bills, as further delay will mean more people face “extreme suffering” this winter as energy bills soar, a former government chief scientific adviser has warned.

David King said: “This could be the worst possible time for the leadership of this country to be simply sitting back. We’re waiting until what? We have an energy crisis right now and we need good leadership. We need alert leadership, leadership that is thinking about this – and that is missing.”

Johnson, who has vowed to take no major decisions in his remaining time in office, attended a meeting of energy companies last week that had no conclusive outcome, and is now on his second holiday since resigning last month.

King told the Guardian: “He is the prime minster. He wanted to stay on, so he must deliver as prime minister. There is no one else who can do that.”

He called for higher taxes on energy companies, which he said were riding soaring energy prices since the Ukraine invasion for a bonanza, rather than investing or becoming more efficient. “They are taking bigger and bigger profits, as the prices are so high. That can only mean that they are tying their profits to the price, not the volume they are delivering,” he said.

King – a former government chief scientist and UK climate envoy from 2000 to 2007, and as the government’s special representative on climate from 2013 to 2017 he was an adviser to prime ministers and foreign secretaries including Johnson – said valuable time had been wasted while the government failed to act.

Waiting several more weeks for a new Conservative leader to take the reins of government would only add to the problem, he said. “There will be extreme suffering, at the lower-paid end of our society,” King warned. “We need fiscal policies that help people in the lower-paid bracket, that manage the costs of energy.”

He said home insulation must also be a priority. “Insulating homes is a massive benefit to individuals and the country at large. Home insulation programmes have always been on the back burner for government for such a long time, though the benefits are enormous.”

Even starting now would help people across the country with bills, he said, adding: “It’s never too late – if you start now, we could see good progress before winter.”

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, will announce new proposals on Monday for how to deal with the UK’s home insulation problem, while calling for the energy bill cap to be retained at its current £1.971, according to a report in the Observer on Sunday.

King was scathing of the Tory leadership candidate Liz Truss’s emphasis on tax cuts to tackle with the cost of living crisis, though she has also hinted further support could not be ruled out. Rishi Sunak, the other leadership hopeful, proposed to cut VAT on energy bills and offer support to bill payers. “The big beneficiaries of low tax are people who can already afford higher energy prices,” he said.

King also criticised the government for turning to increased production of oil and gas in the North Sea to lower energy bills, a move he said would do nothing to alleviate high gas prices and would lock in high greenhouse gas emissions for decades.

“It’s completely the wrong timescale – it will take 10 or 20 years for new oil and gas projects [started now] to come online,” he warned.

The Climate Crisis Advisory Group, an international coalition of scientists chaired by King, will publish a report this week arguing that governments do not need to return to fossil fuels in response to rising gas prices and energy shortages.

International cooperation, expanding investment in renewable energy as well as pursuing energy efficiency through home insulation and in industries would be enough to limit the energy crisis, the report says. Interest rate rises should also be avoided as that would risk a damaging recession.

“The remaining global carbon budget of around 400 gigatonnes of CO2 simply does not allow new fossil fuel expansion,” the report says. “A fossil-fuel rush is simply an unsustainable position and is a big mistake.”

Critics sometimes argue that renewable energy is variable and intermittent – but King says overhauling energy grids and diversifying clean sources of power would solve this problem.

“Offshore wind is very reliable, as the wind blows a very large percentage of the time from the North Sea,” he added. Hydropower in some areas could be used to store energy in dams for release when wind was low.

Nuclear energy also has a part to play, in the UK and around the world, according to King. He said Germany should return to nuclear power, instead of reviving its coal-fired power stations.

“I worry about the fact that the fossil fuel lobby has been amazingly powerful,” in the UK and other countries, King said. Ministers had delayed again a decision on a potential new coalmine in Cumbria, which King warned could be approved by the next prime minister on the “excuse” of energy security.

In the US, important climate legislation was passed last week that will provide hundreds of billions of dollars in funding to key technologies, but owing to pressure from the fossil fuel lobby it still contains sops to gas and oil production. “The power of the fossil-fuel lobby has been such that the US has never been able to play a leading role in negotiations on the climate,” King said.


Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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