For months, we have been waiting for the UK government’s proposal for the future of clean heat policy. After committing to a net-zero carbon target for 2050, the need to take aggressive action now to drive down emissions from heating became clear. Surely the government would announce something bold or step up support for climate-friendly heating technologies? We could not have been more disappointed.

The proposals finally came out last week. Under the current plans, 12,500 homes a year would receive support for switching to low-carbon heating solutions, largely air source heat pumps, in the financial years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024. Let’s put that into perspective: Last year, 1.7 million gas boilers were installed in British homes, up 1.8 per cent from 2018. At that rate, for every one new low-carbon heating system, more than a 120 gas boilers will be installed.

Less than two percent of UK homes have low-carbon heating

At the moment, fewer than 500,000 UK homes have some form of low-carbon heating, when not counting closed stoves or wood used on open fires. This is not even two percent. By 2050, the new policy would only support low-carbon heat in an additional 1.5 percent of the existing housing stock. At that rate, it would take more than 1,500 years to install the 19 million heat pumps that the Committee on Climate Change says we will need to meet the net-zero emission goals.

This is particularly disappointing as there is an immediate opportunity to reduce emissions from heating in the UK.

Clearly, this is incompatible with the government’s net-zero target for 2050. However, the consultation document claims that “these proposals strike the right balance between making an appropriate contribution towards our legally-binding carbon budgets, supporting the supply chain for low carbon heating […], strengthening value for money, and protecting the interests of consumers.”

This is particularly disappointing as there is an immediate opportunity to reduce emissions from heating: The UK is a leading country when it comes to the decarbonisation of electricity in Europe and has made great strides toward zero-carbon electricity. On heating, the UK also stands out, but unfortunately as being amongst the laggards in Europe. Only Ireland and the Netherlands are performing worse. This is a tragedy because the opportunities for reducing carbon emissions from heating have never been greater: Electricity is now so clean that electrification of buildings makes a lot more sense than ten years ago. Compare the UK to the Netherlands, which faces a similar challenge, with almost 90 percent of their eight million homes heated by gas. The Dutch government announced in 2018 that 200,000 homes a year will be transitioned off natural gas to alternative sources of energy by 2022.

Analysis by Imperial College shows that heat pumps can deliver a unit of heat, with carbon emissions being more than two-thirds lower than gas heating. And this figure will only increase with the additional electricity emission reductions the government predicts. At RAP, we recently published our thinking on the principles and policies for accelerating beneficial electrification of heating and found significant immediate potential.

graphic showing share of renewable heat used in European countries
Source: European Commission, Eurostat

How should the change be funded?

There is some good news in the proposals too. Previously, payments for clean heat under the Renewable Heat Incentive were made over several years, following the installation of a low-carbon heating system. For those with limited capital, the upfront cost barrier often stood in the way of converting from fossil to clean. Under the new scheme, payments will be upfront in the form of a grant. This simplifies the system and addresses the cost barrier.

The Clean Heat Grant will be paid for through exchequer funding, as opposed to a levy on electricity bills. This is also a welcome step, however consumers still pay a lot more of the costs of the energy transition through their electricity bills than their heating bills, with gas carrying a much lower cost burden than electricity.

The excellent work by Jake Barnes of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute demonstrates that this unequal sharing of costs between electricity and gas makes heat pumps less financially attractive because of the higher operating costs. Unless consumers can see a financial benefit in the form of lower operating costs, it is unlikely that a modest upfront grant will provide sufficient incentive. Experience from countries such as Sweden and Finland shows that once fossil-fuel heating is no longer the cheapest option, the market changes rapidly. The UK should take note.

Regulation also needs to play a central role in accelerating change. There are simply not enough public subsidies to pull the market in the right direction and away from fossil-fuel heating. Other countries have led the way: Norway has banned oil-fired heating systems in all buildings, new and existing, from 2020. Oil boilers will need to be replaced everywhere. Poland has introduced tight emissions standards in most of its regions, covering all existing buildings. A softer approach involves only prohibiting the replacement of heating systems with specific technologies. The German government has announced a ban on the installation of oil heating systems by 2026, if a low-carbon alternative is technically feasible.

Clean heat has to be combined with greater energy efficiency

Finally, clean heat will only be achievable at scale if combined with aggressive energy efficiency improvements across the entire building stock. Since 2012, energy efficiency installation rates have collapsed and, despite government commitments, levels of efficiency are far below pre-2013 rates. RAP has looked at the potential for energy efficiency, in previous work with the UK Energy Research Centre, and demonstrated there is still substantial potential for energy savings. The government has yet to publish its proposals for upscaling energy efficiency, but what is clear already is that, similar to clean heat, business as usual just won’t cut it.

The opportunity for the UK to decarbonise heating is great. Doing so would cut carbon, improve air quality and people’s comfort and health, and help us to achieve the legal net-zero goals. This will require bold leadership, and policymakers are tasked with setting out how to make it happen. It is laudable that the clean heat consultation document acknowledges “the need for a consistent, long-term policy framework” and that it “is clear that regulations will be needed to underpin the transformation of our building stock.” The Heat and Buildings Strategy, due later this year, will lay out immediate actions for reducing emissions from buildings. This needs to go far beyond the current proposals for clean heat.

A version of this article originally appeared in Utility Week and Green Alliance UK’s Insider Track.