…patio heaters?

The fuss over a few gas heaters for the garden demonstrates that environmentalism is all about training us to live morally acceptable lives.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Rob Lyons thinks the fuss over a few gas heaters for the garden demonstrates that environmentalism is all about training us to live morally acceptable lives.

It’s a ‘patio pandemic’, according to the UK Energy Saving Trust (EST). With prices falling through the floor, patio heaters – umbrella-shaped devices powered by bottled gas – are sprouting in gardens across the nation as we poor, chilly Brits hanker after a continental lifestyle of warm, lazy, wine-fuelled evenings. And, with smoking in enclosed public spaces now banned across the UK, pub landlords and restaurateurs are under pressure to buy patio heaters in order to keep smokers who are forced to huddle outside warm and contented.

Little did we know that the rise of the patio heater is an environmental catastrophe. According to a scary-sounding report from the EST: ‘The patio heater is no ordinary household appliance. It uses on average the same amount of energy as a gas hob gets through in six months, emitting around 50kg of CO2 per year. FACT: the CO2 emitted by 2.3million patio heaters is as much as would be emitted by driving from Lands End to John O’Groats 200,000 times.’

One can almost taste the contempt in which the folks at the EST hold our continental aspirations. The quango’s chief executive, Philip Sellwood, intones: ‘Unsurprisingly patio heaters waste shocking amounts of energy given they are used to heat the “open air”. Our research shows usage predominantly occurs during the hottest months (July and August). There is, of course, a simpler, cheaper and less environmentally damaging solution for those wishing to feel warmer whilst sitting out in the garden during the long summer evenings. It’s called a jumper.’

And if nature biting back through climate change is not enough, Matt Shardlow of conservation group Buglife assures us that patio heaters are great for attracting mosquitoes, too. Apparently, the little devils use the presence of carbon dioxide to find food, and CO2 is apparently something patio heaters will produce a lot of. Indeed, according to the frontpage of today’s Metro, Shardlow believes mozzie populations will actually rise this year as a result of finding food more easily. (Or it could be something to do with all the stagnant water that’s lying around after our miserable summer, especially in the overflowing rainwater butts that eco-auditors told us all to buy during last year’s drought.)

When we’re not insisting on heating up the air outside, we’ve got the temerity to demand the artificial cooling of air inside of buildings, too. ‘The demand for air-conditioning units, though currently on a much smaller scale, is rising steeply: two per cent of homes now have one, with a further two per cent saying they plan to buy one’, says Sellwood.

It’s not just the EST that wants to make ownership of patio heaters socially unacceptable. Sally Uden from the environmental group Forum for the Future told BBC News: ‘I think patio heaters are going to be one of these totemic products which say “I’ve not thought this one through as an individual”. They will start to attract the disdain and discomfort you get with 4x4s.’

At least Uden has the decency to inject a little honesty into proceedings. She admits that the opprobrium for the users (or abusers?) of patio heaters won’t actually do much to protect the climate from man’s allegedly hazardous antics. ‘[S]topping the sale of patio heaters is not going to end climate change’, she says. Too right. The EST’s figures might sound shocking: patio heaters use the same amount of energy as driving for 167million miles. But then, when you consider that cars in Britain drive a total of 250 billion miles a year, you can see that patio heaters would represent just 0.07 per cent of the energy used by the cars, never mind all the other energy we use throughout the year. Sellwood claims that heating the ‘open air’ is a waste of time and effort; in truth, banning patio heaters would be truly pointless.

So, in truth, discouraging people from using patio heaters won’t do much for the environment. However, it will remind us all of the dangers of ‘unnecessary’ consumption – and that seems to be the real message of the bizarre anti-patio heater movement that has emerged in the past few weeks. The patio heater has become, as Uden said, a ‘totem’: it is not actually a great danger to the environment, but it has cynically been made into a public symbol of people’s apparent greed and selfishness. These days, no form of activity can now be allowed to pass without first having its impact on the planet, its contribution to our ‘carbon footprint’, thoroughly checked by those in the know. And any solution to climate change (assuming the problem is as great as activists suggest) which focuses on adapting to rising temperatures rather than on changing behaviour is ruled out as unacceptable.

Instead, we’re always left with only one option: we must constrain our lifestyles and restrain our desires. Want to drive a big car (or any car)? You’re selfish and ignorant. Want to fly around the world? That’s tantamount to child abuse. Aspiration is out; flagellation is in.

The UK government is proposing to cut CO2 emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. Given our current reliance on carbon-based technology, and with few viable alternatives in the pipeline, such a cut could have a dramatically negative effect on all of our lives. Moreover, an outlook that says we need to rein in our ambitions and have a smaller impact on the world will tend to discourage developments that might actually tackle the many problems that humanity continues to face, from poverty and development to fighting disease.

People still want cars, flights abroad and comfortable lives. Recognising this fact, holier-than-thou greens tend to pick at the edges of our aspirations. We can have cars, but not big cars. We can fly to other countries, but not for £50 return as that would only encourage us to do it more often. We can have that lazy summer evening, but only if we wrap up warm in a woolly jumper. Through the war on frequent car-driving, cheap flights and now patio heaters, green-leaning activists and politicians are communicating a clear message: we should all expect less from life, and learn to make do and mend.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Read on: Who’s Afraid of…?

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Topics Science & Tech


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