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Government / Local politics

“In the last two years emissions from heating buildings have actually increased”

The heating in our homes is not being turned off this winter, despite National Grid issuing warnings about gas supply levels. Yet it is our thirst for gas that made this nightmare scenario a more real possibility in the first place.

In this instance, there is reason to believe that this was an exceptional event. The so-called Beast from the East has pushed up gas demand and has also caused problems in gas supply lines from Norway and the Netherlands. Compounding this has been the closure of gas storage facilities that have further restricted supply.

But, even if such weather events are exceptional, this situation was also entirely avoidable – If only successive governments had not failed to promote the decarbonisation of our heating system.

While there are many positive stories of the growing importance of renewables, such as offshore wind, this progress almost entirely relates to our electricity, not our heating. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that 75 per cent of declining emissions from 2012 to 2016 have come from using less coal for power generation. But in the last two years emissions from heating buildings have actually increased.

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This lack of focus on heating is largely because previous governments have argued that security of supply and affordability are more important than decarbonisation, and have instead opted to stick with gas for heating. The current projections from National Grid suggest that this was misguided.

Looking first at security of supply, if anything, the opposite is true. In 2016, 77 per cent of households in the UK relied on natural gas for heating the home. Given the UK imported just under 60 per cent of its natural gas supply in that year, if extreme weather events caused more severe problems than they have this week, the impact would be dramatic.

By contrast, both renewable heating methods and energy efficiency upgrades are more likely to increase security of supply because they are largely locally sourced and do not rely on a wider network of imports.

In particular, energy efficiency improvements like loft and wall insulation are very good at increasing security of supply, because they reduce the overall energy demand of a household and often do not require a specific heating system. Indeed, from 2004-2015 energy efficiency improvements helped to decrease gas demand by 37 per cent.

Yet policy in this area has been historically, and presently, weak because of the second challenge: affordability. The picture is characterised by a constant lack of ambition and funding which inherently stymies the opportunity for any meaningful cost reductions.

Indeed, the National Audit Office recently suggested that the Renewable Heat Incentive, the main scheme providing subsidies for renewable heating technologies, has been over-optimistic about take-up and poorly delivered. Upcoming research from IPPR and Citizens Advice will further demonstrate that the main scheme offering energy efficiency upgrades to households in England and Wales, the Energy Company Obligation, is similarly not fit for purpose.

The idea that any solution other than gas is unaffordable is particularly strange when juxtaposed with the dramatic cost reductions from offshore wind in the power sector – which have actually led to some projects being cheaper than gas used for power.

These reductions were only achievable because the project had sufficient funding in the first place. So it is bewildering that this does not currently serve as a template for what can be achieved in the heating sector.

In fairness, there is some recognition in the current government’s Clean Growth Strategy of the importance of scaling up low carbon heating and energy efficiency deployment, and there are plans for consultations in these areas. But the very immediate concerns with our current system of gas heating must add to urgency with which these are conducted.

In short, decarbonising our heat is no longer just about reducing emissions: it is about protecting the right to keep our homes warm.

Joshua Emden is a research fellow in the environment, housing and infrastructure team at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
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