HomeLow carbon futureSwitching to low carbon heating requires urgent action and leadership

Switching to low carbon heating requires urgent action and leadership

This post is by Dr Richard Lowes, from the University of Exeter’s Energy Policy Group.

Even if the UK meets its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and other countries follow similar paths, the risk of pushing the world beyond 1.5°C of warming is still significant.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C is genuinely upsetting (including, but not limited to, expected irreversible damage to key ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves, and unmanageable coastal zone damage). I won’t comment on what going beyond 2°C looks like.

How we heat buildings is way off track
Almost ten years ago, a wise woman said to me: “It’s like they think if we just keep saying 2050 we will decarbonise heat.”

In the past decade, the average global temperature has increased by over a quarter of a degree.  The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased from 380 parts per million to around 415. Yet, in that ten years, UK regulations have allowed new buildings to be built with fossil fuel heating installed (George Osborne scrapped the zero carbon homes policy) and the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has failed to deliver at the rate needed. As a result, the number of fossil fuel heated homes has actually increased, and it continues to do so.

There is apparently no climate emergency when it comes to heating. There is little to no policy action at all to change the situation.  Following the closure of the non-domestic RHI, minimal policy support exists for the non-domestic sector.

For households, the botched and now scrapped Green Homes Grant has created an air of cynicism, with companies which had invested time and effort on the scheme left with nothing to show for it. Current proposals for a new Clean Heat Grant, expected to be introduced following the closure of the domestic RHI, will actively create a policy chasm with the consultation document suggesting that the number of low carbon heating systems supported under the scheme well below what is actually needed. And, on energy efficiency, a vital piece of the puzzle for heat decarbonisation, the Green Deal, which flopped over five years ago, has still not been replaced.

Current energy prices, which are set at levels resulting from the loading of policy costs onto electricity and the lack of a carbon price on gas (there is one on electricity), means that the energy market is structurally imbalanced towards gas heating. We continue to go in the wrong direction.

The need for speed
While the prime minister’s target of 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 is encouraging, without a thorough and co-ordinated policy package (such as the one I and others have proposed) it is simply empty words.

If the climate emergency had translated into the need for action on heating, we would have a plan for delivery. The expected Heat and Buildings Strategy might partly provide this, but heat does not seem to be a policy priority. This is particularly concerning when history suggests that converting national heating systems tends to take many decades.

The ongoing debate over whether to go for electrification or hydrogen also appears to be delaying action. Hydrogen may play an important role in some sectors of the economy but its mass use for heating has demonstrable issues for the energy system (ie problems around cost, resource use and imports) compared to the widespread roll out of heat pumps which offer significant strategic benefits.

But, even if this were not the case and hydrogen was obviously and strategically a good idea, it still needs to be tested at scale in the existing gas network. No trials are underway, meaning that the likelihood that anywhere could be converted to 100 per cent hydrogen within ten, or perhaps even 15, years is very slim. The one, early stage, in situ trial to test 100 per cent hydrogen is using new pipes.

Concerns have been raised that we don’t yet know enough to decide between electrification or hydrogen. But this is a dangerous position when time is already tight. This is an emergency, and we need to act now. Only known, deployable technologies, ie energy efficiency measures, heat pumps and heat networks, are ready to go and can reduce emissions immediately. Alongside this drive, we can of course further investigate what hydrogen may be able to do and when we know more, re-evaluate the optimum pathway.

Let’s learn from others
We know how to reduce emissions from heating, just look at all the other countries which have well developed low carbon heat systems. There is also growing low carbon heat expertise in the UK which can be capitalised on, and the staggering cost falls in offshore wind make heat decarbonisation an increasingly attractive investment for UK businesses and the nation as a whole.

Tackling the problem of heat is going to be one of the most complex elements of the UK’s energy transition. It needs honesty, competency, agility and clear leadership, elements which appear to be currently lacking. Let’s hope the UK can employ all those characteristics fast to support our legal and ethical obligations to build on the amazing progress made in the electricity sector and meet the need for zero emissions.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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