As noted in the first and the second post, and seen from recent news, heating our homes is a financial and social challenge for many. It is wrapped up in notions of fairness or lack of it, comfort and family, as well as the impact on the environment. Having moved from wood and coal to natural gas, heating our homes using gas boilers is still a major source of direct carbon dioxide emissions which in 2019 stood at 85 million tonnes, that’s 17% of total UK greenhouse gasses emissions. At 3.7 MtCO2e, the Residential Buildings sector accounted for 10% of Welsh emissions in 2019. Given how leaky and old houses are in Wales and the rest of the UK, it is no surprise we continuously feel cold while energy bills keep going up.
Decarbonisation of heat, that is removal of gas as its main fuel, is, therefore, one of the most important climate actions we can take. The UK Committee for Climate Changes noted that between now and 2050, emissions from residential buildings need to fall to zero at a rate of 3.4% per year based on current emission levels. But, as authors of The pathway to net-zero heating in the UK 2021 brief (UK Energy Research Centre) observed, the current pace of decarbonisation (largely due to efficiency programmes and regulation in the period 2002-2012), would get us to zero emissions from buildings in 235 years and fall far short of meeting the 2050 target.
Since the publication of the brief, there has been little progress in the UK with regards to decabonisation of heat. This month, the House of Commons Committee has issued a report setting out the considerable challenges that lie ahead in the transition to decarbonised domestic heating and makes recommendations about the steps which need to be taken for the Government to meet its own targets for the decarbonisation of domestic heating. It is one of those punchy reports full of data and evidence highlighting the slow and inadequate response of the UK central government in enabling decarbonisation. At the same time, the report offers hope and a fresh perspective on the matter of heat because it focuses on all aspects of heat discussed in this series.
On the eve of the report, Darren Jones, Chair of BEIS aptly noted that
“As the Government decides on financial help for customers with the cost of their energy bills, they must also come forward with a replacement for the Green Homes Grant. 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. Decarbonising heat in our homes will require engineers who know how to install low carbon heating systems in every community across the country. The Government should work with industry and trade unions to support a low carbon heating apprenticeship programme and ensure existing workers get access to re-skilling courses that will support their transition to the new green jobs of the future.”
Although decarbonisation of heat is undoubtedly a complex process, the past developments (see the second post about the move from town to natural gas) tell us that socio-technological transitions can be made possible when multiple actors are fully mobilised. However, unlike earlier, the current transition is said to cost too much for taxpayers, the industry, and the government to muster. Does that mean that heat policy has hit the dead end? We do not think so. There is still hope to avoid multiple catastrophes if attention is paid to the physical, human, and environmental aspects of heat, as ignoring them will only derail any progress.
One important caveat though is that no geographical area is the same and so policies and national scenarios need to reflect that. For example, as part of the Zero2050 South Wales project, UKERC researchers worked with National Grid to investigate possible pathways for decarbonising heat in cities in South Wales, and noted that the share of different low carbon technologies under the same decarbonisation scenario is different for each city due to variations in housing stock and their characteristics in terms of the number of houses located in heat dense areas of the cities, and space availability of buildings.
What we have learned
Is it just about the technology? Is It about our habits? Feelings? What can be done?
Here at Cynnal Cymru we recognise that technology alone really cannot solve all of the problems. It will solves some, but not all. We advocate that to reduce emissions and respond to climate change, policymakers need to engage businesses and communities to do their bit because knowledge and technology alone, however well delivered, does not shift behaviour. Knowledge and information campaigns work only if they are in tandem with initiatives that really engage the people most affected and allow them to see the changes that need to happen (for example in retrofitted ‘show homes’). In order to succeed, target audiences also need to trust those who are giving these messages and be able to see the benefits in making changes to their lives or their businesses. We also agree with the key message from commentators on this topic: first, insulation, then roll out of low carbon alternatives, while enabling (not just informing) the change in behaviour. Perhaps later other technologies can come in to support the decarbonisation. It is not one or the other, but rather more of many.
This is why in our training, consultancy, and facilitation work we focus on actions, in particular, the steps organisations can take to enable others to do their bit. We also connect people with experts in their field, like the Active Building Centre, and point to information that can help.
Coming back to the question of what we can do about it
If you can afford insulation, do it immediately. The longer you leave it, the more heat you waste. his might be easiest when thinking of renovating a house that you just bought or as part of a bigger home improvement project – but even if you find yourself in different circumstances, the benefits of action will outweigh the inconvenience.
If you are renting and you have no agency over insulation, check EPC standard for your home first because if it is low, you may ask your landlord to take new measures, or talk to council. Given that the report by the House of Commons Committee on decarbonisation of heat calls on Ministers to set out what measures are being considered to assist tenants who rent their homes in managing the transition to low carbon heating with their landlords, you may hopefully see changes in policy.
If you are working in the social housing sector, do not rely only on the provision of information to tenants to reduce energy consumption. Tenants need to be listened to, their concerns answered, and live examples of what’s possible through retrofit are needed in the community. If engaging your tenants in these conversations is challenging, consider reading the latest account by a journalist whose childhood was dominated by poverty, damp clothes, and stigma.
If you are a business and you are struggling paying bills, check the guidance by OFGEM as to what can be done immediately, but also use this challenge as an opportunity to plan your decarbonisation strategy.