Thanks to the phase out of coal from the national grid – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – the UK has made decent progress in cutting emissions, but the country’s remaining dependence on gas is much harder to deal with.
Not only does gas account for around a third of how our electricity is generated, but it is also piped to homes to heat our water and fire our central heating systems.
However, while some elements of the government’s response to the climate crisis are backed with legislation, such as the legally binding goal of hitting net zero emissions by 2050, instead of giving the ban on new gas boilers legal backing, the government has said only that their new funding commitments support a “confirmed ambition for all new heating systems installed in UK homes from 2035 to be low carbon”.
Without a legal mechanism, it does not amount to a full ban, and there is now debate over how the “ambition” is interpreted by the industry and the public.
There is the suggestion that if it is treated by both business and potential customers as a ban, then it may not matter if it is legally enshrined or not.
But it could also afford the government wriggle room in the future, which could ultimately end up allowing greater levels of emissions to be released.
“Being a cynic, I’d say ‘confirmed ambition’ is constructively ambiguous enough for all in Cabinet to agree to and to spin as appropriate. So…it’s a ban! But also, not a ban!” said Carbon Brief’s deputy editor Simon Evans.
But Friends of the Earth’s head of policy Mike Childs told The Independent a ban backed by law should only be needed as a backstop.
He said: “Tougher action is needed to ensure that the government’s ‘confirmed ambition’ for low-carbon heating systems becomes a reality.
“This means more money upfront to make heat pumps affordable for everyone which in turn will build an industry at scale that will drive the cost of heat pumps down considerably. The government must ensure that low carbon heating is the cheapest and automatic choice. An outright ban by 2035 should only be needed as a backstop for the few who refuse to do their bit in the fight against climate chaos.”
According to a report by Aurora Energy Research, electricity demand from home heating is set to quadruple by 2050 as we shift away from gas boilers. But they warned delaying the ban of gas boilers to 2040 could still leave us with a quarter of today’s home-heating related emissions in 2050, which they said was the equivalent of running a 2GW coal-fired power station 24 hours a day for a full year.
The concern comes as the government has also set out funding plans for how it aims to drive down the cost of alternative domestic heating systems, such as heat pumps.
This will include a £450m boiler upgrade scheme, with maximum payments of £5,000 per home, which will amount to the installation of around 30,000 low-carbon heating systems a year.
This is not a significant increase on current installation rates, and remains far short of the government’s previous target of 600,000 a year – amounting to just 5 per cent of that.
But according to independent government advisors the Climate Change Committee the UK requires 100,000 heat pumps to be installed a year by 2025.
Conservationists have described the government’s efforts as “unambitious”.
Greenpeace UK’s climate campaigner, Caroline Jones, said: “Sadly the government has stopped short of what’s required to transform our housing into the clean, affordable, energy efficient homes that we all want and need to be living in.
“Housing is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise but the government is making it all the more difficult by leaving half its tools in the toolbox, with unambitious policies and inadequate funding.”
Others have warned that without a full switch to systems such as heat pumps, consumers are left dependent on government policy to deliver clean “green hydrogen”, while the government has said it would also support so-called “blue hydrogen”, which requires sources of natural gas, and could lock in dependency on fossil fuels.
Juliet Phillips, senior policy advisor at climate think tank E3G said: “The 2035 target for phasing out fossil gas boilers can act as clear signal to industry and households of the pathway ahead, but government must beware the Trojan horse of so-called ‘hydrogen ready’ boilers – which could have a similar carbon footprint to fossil gas boilers, in the absence of secure connections to green hydrogen supply.”
Despite widespread support for greater measures to combat the worsening climate crisis, recent surveys suggest as few as 6 per cent of consumers have installed low-carbon central heating systems in their homes.
First promised in July, the heat and buildings strategy has been delayed for months by wrangles between Tory MPs concerned about the cost to consumers of making the change.
Writing in The Sun today, Boris Johnson sought to reassure the public that no-one will be forced to tear out existing heating systems from their homes.
“While we’re going to have to make some pretty major changes to the way we heat our homes, the Greenshirts of the Boiler Police are not going to kick in your door with their sandal-clad feet and seize, at carrot-point, your trusty old combi,” the prime minister wrote.
The Independent has contacted the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for comment.