Progress on heating has ‘stalled’, CCC warns

Progress towards the decarbonisation of heating has “stalled”, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has warned.

Emissions targets will not be met unless the government implements “a credible new strategy and a much stronger policy framework”.

“Action is required now to reduce emissions and to prepare for future decisions,” the committee said in a new report. It identified the main options for the decarbonisation heating as electrification through heat pumps, hydrogen pumped through the existing gas grid, and to a lesser extent district heating networks.

It is not yet clear what would be the “best balance” of technologies: “More evidence is required about costs, industry’s capacity to deliver and preferences of households and businesses.”

If emissions from heating are to be largely eliminated by 2050, as the UK’s emissions targets imply, then “a national programme to switch buildings on the gas grid to low-carbon heating would need to begin around 2030”.

A decision on which pathway to take would have to take place by the end of the next parliament in 2025. The failure to make a clear choice could add to costs due to “suboptimal infrastructure development or overlaps between the roll-out of different low-carbon heat solutions in a given area.”

The committee said there is time for “experimentation over the next decade or so to develop the best strategy” but warned this should not mean taking a “wait and see” approach.

It said measures can be taken now to prepare for a decision: “For heat pumps this will require that a market of sufficient size is developed to enable increased roll-out in future. For hydrogen, there will need to be pilots and demonstrations of sufficient scale to fully understand the potential challenges… Before a decision to proceed with hydrogen, it is essential that CCS is under active development in the UK, in order to provide a low-carbon route to producing hydrogen at scale.”

Ofgem will need to make sure that the next price control review for gas transmission and distribution networks “reflects the wide range of possible pathways for heat supply”. In order to get consumers on board with the transition, the government must address issues around “poor installation and performance, and current weak levels of consumer protection”.

The next steps for the government

Source: Committee on Climate Change

The committee said there are also a number of short-term steps which can be taken to start cutting emissions now, as “low-carbon heat cannot wait until the 2030s”. ‘Low-regret’ options include fitting heat pumps in homes that are off the gas grid, installing low-carbon district heating networks in densely populated areas, and increasing injections of biomethane into the gas grid.

“These opportunities can be taken within funding that has already been agreed provided policy measures are well-targeted and we learn the lessons from previous UK and international experience,” it added.

Furthermore, there should improvements to the energy efficiency of existing housing stocks, and the government should ensure that new homes are built to be highly energy efficient. New builds should be future proofed for low-carbon heating systems to avoid “costly” retrofitting.

The CCC called on the government to set “clear goals for improving efficiency and rolling out low-carbon heating” in its emissions reductions plan for meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. The carbon plan was due to published later this year but there have been reports it has been delayed until 2017.

Scottish Renewables director of policy Jenny Hogan said: “Already behind on its climate and renewable energy targets, we agree government needs a clear strategy to decarbonise heat – which makes up almost half of the energy used in the UK. As part of a package of support government must now reform the Renewable Heat Incentive to ensure the roll-out of low-carbon heat networks and technologies.”

The committee has also published reports today on the implications of the Paris climate change agreement and the Brexit vote for the UK’s emissions targets

Last month the think tank Policy Exchange published a report urging the government to “completely re-think” its strategy for heating. With a price tag of £300 billion, it said plans to install electric heat pumps in four out of five homes by 2050 are a “colossal waste of money”.