Old domestic gas boiler
Decarbonising domestic heat is the big remaining challenge of climate policy

Global events and the soaring cost of living have rightly absorbed a huge amount of our domestic political bandwidth and provoked renewed discussions about our need for greater energy security. These discussions are welcome, and in many respects long overdue, but we must ensure they don’t distract from the existing challenges we face, and the existing measures we have at our disposal to confront them.

Decarbonisation, of the economy, of our building stock, and our infrastructure presents such challenges. But it is true that many of the solutions emerging to support decarbonisation would also prevent our dependency on questionable third-party states, which has become so feared in recent weeks.

The University of Birmingham’s Energy Institute has long been a leading voice in championing the urgency and efficiency which is needed to tackle these challenges, and to seize on the opportunities we face. Their most recent contribution comes in the form of a new report ‘Pathways for Local Heat Delivery’. This report is the result of the hard work of a range of industry and academic experts who form the University’s Decarbonising Heat Commission and its recommendations form the basis of the insights below.

Decarbonising domestic heat is the big remaining challenge of climate policy. Progress lags behind that of electricity and transport, although heat for buildings causes 23% of Britain’s total greenhouse gas emissions and heat for housing alone causes 17%. As a result, we need to cut emissions from heat more in the next eight years than we have in the past thirty.

The implications of this are stark - unless we replace 24 million gas boilers, we will never reach net zero.

This means that, contrary to some of the stances circulating since the invasion of Ukraine, the soaring price of gas makes heat decarbonisation yet more urgent – not less. Indeed, tackling the decarbonisation of domestic heat provides a central platform through which the Government can address some of their biggest challenges: energy security; air quality; health; jobs and skills; fuel poverty and levelling up; the cost of living – the list is long.

So why has there been such reluctance to make significant headway?

There is no one size fits all approach – our housing stock is varied, the majority of UK homes (other than social housing which has seen successful attempts to have its emissions slashed) are old and built using inefficient materials, and rural homes which don’t sit on the energy grid rely solely on fossil fuels for power.

This government, and previous administrations, have fallen into the trap of trying to solve this problem through national schemes, but heat is by definition local. Heat resources and patterns of demand differ from place to place, pushing each neighbourhood towards one or other of the main technology options – heat pumps, heat networks and possibly hydrogen. Building infrastructure to supply all three, everywhere, would not be cost effective. Each area will need to choose which technology or combination of technologies suits it best.

The Government must therefore empower and fund councils to start conducting local area energy planning (LAEP) to map and zone their area by technology, immediately. We believe this is so fundamental that unless every council has prepared an LAEP by 2025 it will put the 2050 target at risk.

And that leads us to the second prominent reason for a lack of movement – the required behavioural change from consumers is significant. Whereas electricity emissions can be reduced in ways that are largely invisible to consumers, and transport emissions slashed by selling them sexy new products, tackling heat demands the Government to intervene in every home in the country. Naturally, politicians are cautious.

But there are already some easy wins. Of Britain’s c £2.6bn annual spending on fuel poverty, only 15% reaches the fuel poor and only 22% is spent on energy efficiency. The Government should re-target all this spending on insulation for the fuel poor - reducing bills, emissions and fuel poverty.

And the transition need not cost the earth: Germany’s successful KfW scheme has catalysed investment of 480bn euros and essentially paid for itself from the extra VAT this generated. If the Government introduces the right policies now, heat pumps could be cheaper to buy and run than a gas boiler – without subsidy – by the end of the decade. It will however, cost the earth if we fail to galvanise heat policy right now.

The disruption of the pandemic and the impact of war in Ukraine must serve as a lesson - now is the time to focus on policy interventions which help us mitigate threats and protect us from issues which loom on the horizon. Now is the time for action.

Professor Martin Freer is Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute

Sir John Armitt chaired the Policy Commission on decarbonising heat