UK Government Urged to Decarbonise heat by Green Groups

The decarbonisation of heating represents a life-changing challenge for many countries.  If the UK is to reach its target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 it needs to completely remove fossil fuel combustion from heating in just three decades.

It is generally agreed that careful planning and policy are required to bring about the scale of low carbon heat transformation needed. At the present time, according to the International Energy Agency, heat makes up half of global energy use and is responsible for approximately 40% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

The government is due to release the next phase of its economic recovery package in the second week of July and many green groups are anxious to ensure that the decarbonisation of heat is written into their proposals. They have written to the chancellor urging him to prioritise investments that can decarbonise the UK’s housing stock.

A letter signed by Greenpeace, CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), Friends of the Earth and E3G is calling for the chancellor to transform the UK from “zero-carbon heat laggard to leader” by choosing to take on a range of measures that can energise the heat pump market.

The groups are warning that the decarbonisation of heat “is the biggest gap” the UK comes up against in meeting its net zero target by 2050. In order to meet this target, they believe that something in the region of one million heat pumps need to be installed per year. Although, space heating and hot water in buildings makes up 21% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions only 100,000 heat pumps were installed in 2019 a tiny segment of what is needed.

The letter presses the government to commit to cutting emissions from heating in half by 2030., a transitional goal that would get the country “on track” to net zero.

Associate director at climate think tank E3G, Ed Matthew, anticipates energy efficiency measures and the installation of heat pumps creating more jobs across the UK than any other capital infrastructure programme.

He said:

“It is the perfect economic stimulus to boost jobs and can help get us on track to net-zero and solve fuel poverty. No other infrastructure programme can do so much for people in every part of the country. If the Government is serious about building our way out of the recession, it must prioritise the re-building of our homes to make them zero carbon.”

The groups are asking for the £100m Clean Heat Grant programme for heat pumps announced in the last budget to be brought forward to this year to encourage and stimulate a zero-carbon heating transformation. This would allow a ‘Clash for Clunkers’ heat scheme to provide grants for anyone exchanging an old fossil-fuel boiler for a heat pump.

Another of the campaigners’ requests is for the government to set a target to bring all homes to at least EPC Band C by 2030.

Energy Performance Certificates are a legal requirement for a building to be sold, let, or constructed and were introduced in England and Wales in 2007. Once obtained, an EPC is valid for 10 years. 

The most efficient homes, which should have the lowest fuel bills are in band A. The Certificate also tells you, on a scale of A-G, about the impact the home has on the environment. Better-rated homes should have less impact through Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The groups want the government to deliver on its manifesto pledge to invest £9.2bn on energy efficiency upgrades for low-income households, schools, and hospitals. They also suggested that a further $500m should be provided annually to encourage the take-up of energy efficiency improvements by households that are able to contribute. They predict that targeted incentive schemes would open up five times as much private investment in home upgrades and create thousands of jobs at the same time.

Finally, the group’s letter calls for a further 2.3bn investment in a public-private financing plan that can act as a catalyst for the installation of 10 million heat pumps in homes before the end of the decade.

Recently reports have surfaced that suggest the government is looking at watering down its £9.2bn upgrade programme in favour of rolling out what some may consider to be a more exciting housebuilding programme.

Chief executive of the CPRE, Crispin Truman is pressing the government to put into action its planned Future Homes Standard, which is currently due in 2025, as soon as possible.

He said:

“The chancellor has a real opportunity to turn this around to create new green jobs, especially in hard hit rural communities, while helping to get us back on track in facing up to the climate crisis. Looking ahead, a Future Homes Standard is needed as soon as possible, so that new housing becomes part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Only then can the government claim to be building back better.” 

The group’s letter stresses that the government should focus on heat pumps rather than hydrogen in order to decarbonise heat at least in the medium-term. Though they support investment in the development of green hydrogen for use by heavy industry and freight they do not believe that it makes “economic or environmental sense to use hydrogen to heat the majority of the buildings on the gas network”.

The letter includes a warning that blue hydrogen sourced from methane with a carbon capture and storage (CCS) system is not “net zero compatible” at the scale required for heating buildings, as a high level of greenhouse emissions leak from the gas supply chain.

The British Gas parent company Centrica has put forward a similar argument in a briefing document which says that heat pumps should be the main focus of heat decarbonisation efforts in the short to medium term.

However, there are a number of leading gas network companies who have presented a very different plan to policymakers in recent months which involves switching the existing gas network to hydrogen and biomethane. They believe that this will provide a more cost-effective long-term route for decarbonising heating. 

Statutory government advisor ‘The Committee on Climate Change’ (CCC) believes that in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, no fossil fuel heat systems can be installed after 2035. At the moment, despite the long-term goal for heat decarbonisation, reaching this target appears to be very uncertain and progress is slow.

Mass electrification has often been assumed to be the way forward for heat decarbonisation but the potential technology options have become far more diverse to include roles for heat pumps in conjunction with electrification, district heating, bio-energy, hydrogen and varying levels of increased energy efficiency leaving the pathway to heat decarbonisation significantly uncertain.

There is no doubt that with only three decades remaining to decarbonise heating in the UK rapid policy development is required and even in the face of uncertainty decisions will need to be made.

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