Government’s approach to low-carbon heat failing to engage public or slash emissions, MPs warn

The UK Government is today (3 February) being warned that its proposals for decarbonising heat and buildings in line with long-term climate targets are not ambitious enough - and that its approach is alienating and confusing the general public.

Government’s approach to low-carbon heat failing to engage public or slash emissions, MPs warn

At present

That warning comes in the form of a new report from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee, which scrutinizes the Heat and Buildings Strategy. Published last October after delays of almost 12 months, the Strategy aimed to outline how these high-emitting and hard-to-abate sectors would be decarbonized in line with the UK’s legally binding 2050 net-zero target and interim targets.

As trade bodies and environmental NGOs have argued repeatedly, the Committee’s report states that the level of funding and the targets for technology roll-outs detailed in the Strategy are not in keeping with the Government’s own commitments. For example, the Government has committed to delivering 600,000 heat pump installations annually from 2028, but the Strategy contains grant funding for just 30,000 homes.

The heat pump target, the report states, is “vital” to meet, lest the UK face a “great risk” of not meeting net-zero by mid-century. It argues that, as well as providing more grants to customers, there needs to be more support for scaling up heat pump manufacturing and installation, carried out in partnership with trade bodies.

The BEIS Committee is also warning that Ministers are underestimating the role of energy efficiency; failing to provide targeted support for fuel-poor homes and other vulnerable people and stalling on progress to regulate heat networks – among other failures.

All in all, the report sets out the case for a Heat Decarbonisation Sector Deal, which would help leverage private sector investment and open better opportunities for collaborating with stakeholders including trade unions, suppliers and the education sector.

The Government currently has a range of industry sector deals including life sciences, aerospace, and offshore wind. During the BEIS Committee inquiry, the idea of a similar approach to low-carbon heat was supported by organisations including E3G and the Government’s own advisory body the Climate Change Committee (CCC). The Committee is recommending that a sector deal is published by the end of 2023.

Also recommended by the Committee is a replacement for the failed Green Homes Grant, to retrofit homes at scale and pace beyond the social housing sector. And, for new homes, the report recommends that gas boilers are banned from 2023 rather than 2025, to avoid locking in dependence.

BEIS Committee chair Darren Jones MP summarised: “Action is needed to improve insulation and energy efficiency in our homes and to step up the pace in delivering low carbon heating systems, at a lower cost to households than today. Ministers can’t simply leave this to the market – Government should tackle the cost of heating our homes in the round and bring forward joined-up policies that address these issues together.”

The publication of the report comes as Friends of the Earth is drawing up a legal challenge to the Heat and Buildings Strategy, to be brought before the High Court. The NGO is arguing that in developing the Strategy, the Government failed to identify and consider how it will affect vulnerable people, as it is legally required to under the Equality Act 2010. 

Public engagement

The UK’s decarbonisation progress has, to date, been driven by the shift away from coal in the power sector, towards cleaner energy sources. But, going forward, the CCC has repeatedly stated that more changes will be needed on a behavioural level, affecting the way people live and work.

Changing heating infrastructure is one of these behavioural changes. As such, there was much back-and-forth in the tabloids in the lead-up to the Strategy’s publication, with scaremongering over low-income homes having their existing boilers ripped out and being made to pay through the nose for low-carbon alternatives.

The debate has continued to unfold on the public stage amid the ongoing energy price crisis, which some factions are using to rubbish low-carbon technologies and falsely claim that the net-zero transition will certainly have more downsides than benefits for the average person.

Taking this into account, the BEIS Committee’s report spends much time assessing the Government’s failure, to date, to get the general public on side, and setting out recommendations for improvement.

It recommends the creation of a public awareness campaign, clearly explaining to the public how their heating systems in their homes will change and the potential costs and benefits of this transition. Local authorities should be involved in that campaign, the report argues. Also floated is the idea of a body for England modelled after Home Energy Scotland, which provides independent and expert advice on domestic energy.

The report does acknowledge, additionally, that the private sector “needs to demonstrate more commitment to improving their product capabilities and greater potential for price reductions and production volumes increase”, to support the Government’s communications. Also discussed is the need for more robust consumer protections, potentially with Ofgem as regulator and Citizens Advice as the independent, consumer-facing body.

Darren Jones MP added: “Billpayers today are deeply worried about their energy costs, with many people struggling to afford to heat their homes. Most people don’t realise that their gas boiler will need to be replaced within the next ten to 15 years. The Government and energy companies should explain to bill payers why switching away from gas and insulating our homes is not only important in tackling climate change, but also a route to reducing energy bills.”

Green economy reaction

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit’s (ECIU) head of analysis Dr Simon Cran-McGreehin said: “By highlighting the poor quality of the UK’s housing stock, the Committee’s report reinforces the urgent need for energy efficiency improvements to cut bills as part of levelling-up and the move to net zero.

“The Government clearly agrees, with a central plank of its new Levelling Up White Paper aiming to improve cold, damp, ‘non-decent’ homes in areas with the lowest incomes and highest energy bills.

“With gas set to push average household energy bills towards £2,000 per year, it’s worth remembering that, according to Government advisors, two-thirds of British homes don’t need tens of thousands spent on them and can see bills insulated from this and future gas crises with £1,000 of investment from Government schemes such as ECO.”

The Energy Systems Catapult’s strategy and performance director Guy Newey said: “This is a timely and welcome report which lays bare some of the barriers to low carbon heating uptake in Britain.

“Robust energy planning at the local level will be key to overcoming the challenges, helping to determine low carbon infrastructure investment priorities for different areas and building local consent for the changes needed to transition to new technologies.

“Better incentives to switch to low carbon heating technologies are also essential to create confidence for innovative companies looking to invest in new consumer-friendly offers. Incentives could include introducing carbon standards for the emissions per household across a supplier’s customer base, or even a credits scheme linked to carbon performance of a building measured through smart meters.

“Uptake of low-carbon heating will only happen at the scale we need if solutions are as good or better than the alternatives. Gradually redistributing levies on low carbon tech would help encourage this transition, making greener options like heat pumps and hydrogen boilers more attractive and affordable.”

The Ground Source Heat Pump Association’s (GSHPA) chair Laura Bishop said: “The Select Committee acknowledges the central importance of heat pumps to decarbonise heating in homes across the UK; without heat pumps, the UK’s net-zero ambitions will be hard to achieve.  As the Committee points out, the pace of change now needs to pick up and firm policy measures put in place, if the Government’s ambition to see 600,000 heat pumps installed every year by 2028 is to be realised.

“The GSHPA is pleased that the Select Committee has highlighted a number of measures to ramp up the heat pump roll-out, not least the need for a consumer finance scheme, selected grants for consumers and industry, improved training/upskilling of the labour market and a Heat Decarbonisation Sector Deal. These are all measures that the GSHPA has called for, as well as the lifting of the environmental levies on electricity for those using heat pumps.”

The Heat Pump Federation’s director of growth and external affairs Bean Beanland said: “Whether on consumer awareness, skills and training, investment, future funding, the need for urgency, or the need for massive cooperation between both central and local government and industry, we agree, almost without exception, with the Select Committee’s findings and recommendations.

“This report makes clear that rapid development of a Heat Decarbonisation Sector Deal must be a priority. This needs to include policy direction for the thirty years through to net-zero 2050 and a domestic heat technology roadmap that has been developed in full collaboration with industry and crucially consumer groups.  Consumers need to be positively involved in the net-zero journey.”

Hydrogen UK’s chief executive Clare Jackson said: “The conclusions within this report have overlooked a crucial part of successfully decarbonising heat. Our members are puzzled as to why the report did not review hydrogen, alongside heat pumps and networks and would welcome the opportunity to help the committee rectify this oversight. Hydrogen heating and the repurposing of the existing gas networks must be part of the UK’s ambitious plans to reach net-zero.” The Heat and Buildings Strategy notably deferred a formal policy decision on hydrogen for domestic heating to 2026. 

edie readers interested in learning more about heat pumps are encouraged to listen to the episode of our Net-Zero Business Podcast on the topic, featuring experts from Centrica Business Solutions and the Heat Pump Federation. Click here to stream that episode. 

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    Decarbonise electricity generation in order to obtain a reliable controllable system?, then the only high capacity answer is nuclear.
    We have yet to crack the problem of fusion energy, but the rewards are huge. In the meantime we do have nuclear.
    The idea that this energy is only for baseload is not ultimately tenable, fast reactors are capable of this function, correct me if I am wrong.
    The waste from thorium, (when used as a precursor to U233) is a problem, but not, I understand, insuperable.
    But wind and solar as major providers, well.
    Richard Phillips

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