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Our obsession with comfort is the carbon conundrum everyone ignores

‘Not a goosebump between us.’ WorldWide

Our obsession with comfort is the carbon conundrum everyone ignores

What characteristics would your ideal home have? A sauna? Lots of natural light? An open-plan kitchen?

Whatever your answer, you probably didn’t consider how the things you wanted would affect the energy you use. The link between comfort and energy is not something that troubles most people, but actually it’s very important. In the UK, our houses consume up to 27% of the energy we produce.

Governments encourage us to save energy through things such as turning off the lights and taking shorter showers; better insulation and boiler upgrades; and installing renewable energy sources like solar panels in the home. But none of this pays attention to the comforts we expect, and how they have changed over time. To give one example, indoor temperatures in the UK rose from 12°C to 17.5°C between 1970 and 2010. Despite all our efforts to bring it down, the amount of energy we use at home is not much different to 40 years ago. As the world digests the outcome of the Paris climate talks, it’s time our desire to be more comfortable came under the spotlight.

Until the 18th century, comfort was far less about physical pleasure than spiritual satisfaction, well-being and consolation. Seating was designed to aid sitting respectfully with a refined posture. The equivalent of today’s La-Z-boy chair was created on medical grounds for invalids, pregnant women, and men with gout (see image below) – what we think of as comfortable was not even intended for normal able-bodied people.

Thomas Rowlandson, 1798. Wikimedia

The shift in our expectations happened for a couple of reasons. There was a consumer revolution between 1700 and 1850, which saw people filling their homes with objects – clothes, accessories, furnishings and so on. And humanitarian reformers began to see comfort as one of our basic human needs, and gave it more of a physical emphasis. Basic standards of comfort came to be seen as a benchmark for social equality – elevating an adequately heated home to a human right, for example.

The quest for more

The trouble is that once one basic need is met for everyone, there is always scope for improvement. Turn comfort into a commodity and it becomes part and parcel of a high-consumption society. With the best of intentions, this is what has happened to us.

In Glasgow in 1850, for instance, each person used an average of 3.73 litres of water per day for drinking, bathing and so forth. Today’s average is roughly 150 litres. This reflects how social conventions have evolved alongside technical innovations, such as the development of the bathroom and new hygiene standards.

In the UK, the years between 1890 and 1920 marked a dramatic transformation in our expectations of home comfort with the arrival of central heating, indoor plumbing, running hot and cold water, electric light and power. Connecting homes to these networks of water, sewage, gas and electricity unsurprisingly transformed domestic life and the layout of homes. Alongside these changes, our energy requirements skyrocketed.

The past few decades have seen further crucial changes. The pie charts below give a flavour of them. You can see a big rise in appliances, reflecting all the mobiles, tablets, consoles and so forth in modern homes. Energy for home computing more than doubled between 2000 and 2014, for instance.

Energy use in UK homes, 1970-2011

DECC 2013

We also use more hot water, having shifted from weekly bathing to daily showering, and more light bulbs. But the energy shares of water and lighting are down thanks to more energy-efficient technology. Cooking is down too, but don’t be fooled here. We are eating more takeaways and ready meals, so the energy for preparing them has just been outsourced.

On the other hand, we now actually use more energy to heat space. This is despite the fact that central heating has become very common since the 1970s. It is a more efficient way of making a room warm, but we heat more rooms and to higher temperatures.

Technology and expectations

Where householders were once brought together by the warmth of the fireplace in the living room, it became possible for them to do individual activities in individual rooms. Hence individual privacy became a fundamental expectation of home comfort, meaning that more rooms needed to be warm enough to spend time in. One consequence has been that the amount of living space per person in the UK has been rising. And house and household size are some of the biggest determinants of energy demand.

The change in our view of what constitutes a normal indoor temperature in the past 20 years is down to the spread of air conditioning, central heating and thermal regulations. Which is an example of why we need to be aware that changes in technology and improvements in efficiency don’t always reduce consumption in the ways we might expect. Indeed, many researchers have been led to suggest that the 5.5°C rise in 40 years is grounds for switching our focus to indoor climate change.

Everything just so. Monkey Business Images

In short, governments and academics need to pay much more attention to what people want from their homes. They need to think about how these expectations of “normal” home comforts have been changing, and the influence of improvements in efficiency and low-carbon technologies. What we see from the Paris climate talks is that governments are focusing on technical fixes to our carbon problem, rather than challenging the richest 10% of the population to question the sustainability of their desire for more and more comfort. Since they are responsible for half the world’s carbon emissions, we won’t succeed until that finally changes.