80% isn’t enough

Any discussions on heat governance and the future of heating in the UK are welcome, particularly because of the lack of historical focus heat has received. However, this lack of focus means that it is a small network of actors involved in the UK heat policy network and many of the companies or organisations involved are associated with the incumbent and fossil fuel industry. As such, any evidence produced on heat governance requires particularly careful scrutiny, something this blog attempts to provide.

A report released on the 8th September by Policy Exchange (Policy Exchange, 2016)(PX) considers the two key aspects of UK heat policy which have been the subject of my PhD research, the UK ‘Heat Strategy’ and the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). The PX report was supported by Calor Gas who have an interest in the off-gas-grid heating market and the Energy and Utilities Alliance, a trade body whose membership comprises primarily incumbent and fossil fuel based heating companies.

On the heat strategy, the report argues that the path of major growth of electric heating (mainly heat pumps) should not be followed. This is at odds with the UK Government’s heat strategy (DECC, 2013) which suggested that by 2050, the majority of all space and water heating will need to be met by either electric heating such as heat pumps or district heat networks supplied by low-carbon heat. The PX report, which employs bottom up pathway analysis by consultants Delta EE describes a scenario which has significantly increased levels of energy efficiency and primarily uses lower carbon gas appliances such as gas heat pumps, gas micro-CHP and hybrid heat pumps rather than fully electric heat pumps. This scenario also involves some significant growth in district heating in urban areas. It is explained that this scenario could reduce GHG emissions from heat by around 80%.

The scenario tool, owned by Delta EE, was originally established for the Energy Networks Association Gas Futures Group in order to develop evidence that could be given to DECC to show that the gas industry would have a role post 2050. It has also been used by the Heating and Hot Water Industry Council, a trade body which represents the UK heating industry. When the original report on the Delta pathways work was presented to DECC by the Energy Networks Association in 2012, Greg Barker, minister at the time rejected the findings on two main issues, firstly that the assumptions for the availability of biogas were very optimistic (which they still are, a point I have briefly considered previously) and secondly, the level of carbon reduction under the ‘balanced scenario’ was not enough, even with the high biogas assumptions.

It is this second point which I believe undermines the Policy Exchange report. The UK’s legally binding climate change act requires an 80% reduction of GHG emissions on 1990 levels by 2050. Based on their own modelling and analysis, The Committee on Climate Change suggests that under the current 80% target, because there is only a small amount of room for residual emissions, ‘It is therefore sensible to plan now to keep open the possibility of near-full decarbonisation of both buildings and surface transport by 2050’ (Committee on Climate Change, 2015, p57). This therefore suggests that the 80% reduction proposed by the PX report will not be enough to meet our existing 2050 carbon target.

Further still, in the context of the longer term, i.e. post 2050, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that in order for it to be likely that the 2 degrees Celcius temperature rise target will not be exceeded, global emissions will, by 2100, need to be zero or negative (Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, 2014) and as such, net zero emissions is a goal of the Paris climate agreement. This point has been confirmed at a UK level by Andrea Leadsom, previous energy minister, where in a parliamentary debate she explained: ‘The Government believes we will need to take the step of enshrining the Paris goal of net zero emissions in UK law—the question is not whether, but how we do it’ (Parliament, 2016).

As such, while the PX report may indeed make sense in the context of an 80% reduction of emissions from heating, quite simply, 80% isn’t enough and the UK must go further in this area. A full transformation away from fossil fuels is required. In fact, the reports makes this point itself.

‘If the Government wishes to pursue a more ambitious reduction in heat-related emissions then this could be achieved either through an expansion in the use of electric heat pumps and heat networks, or through the conversion of the gas grid to run on hydrogen. However, all of these options present far greater challenges in terms of the impact on consumers, networks and supply-side considerations. It is clear from our analysis that targeting a 90% reduction in heat-related emissions would be considerably more expensive and challenging to deliver than an 80% reduction, and is likely to require a very different set of technology solutions.’ (p11).

Yes, it may be tricky for consumers and the system, but the other option is that the targets don’t get met. However, I’m not convinced that the full decarbonisation would be that much more difficult than the Policy Exchange scenario which still requires almost every house to have a new heating system, whether it be gas, electric or district heating. If we are looking at transforming the heat system to a sustainable one, we might as well go all the way to full decarbonisation than eventually requiring another phase of further decarbonisation after installing slightly more efficient gas appliances.

As such, the role of district heating and heat-pumps, as opposed to more efficient gas appliances still seems like a central requirement of a transformation to sustainable heating in the UK and this point deserved more recognition in the Policy Exchange report. The lack of focus on this issue reduces the overall impact and value of the report, which actually included many very sensible recommendations on easy wins, demand reduction and the regulation of district heating.  However, a number of the recommendations in the report, around support for non-renewable heat technologies do not make sense and instead a greater drive for better, electric heating is required. While I certainly do agree with the overall support for greater demand reduction and increased district heating, the use of fossil fuels for heating needs to be eliminated if climate targets are to be met.


Committee on Climate Change (2015) The Fifth Carbon Budget: The next step towards a low-carbon economy. London.

DECC (2013) The Future of Heating : Meeting the challenge. London.

Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T.Z. and J.C.M. (2014) IPCC, 2014, Summary for Policymakers. In Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univeristy Press, pp. 1–33.

Parliament (2016) House of Commons Debate 14th March 2016. [online]. Available from: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm160314/debtext/160314-0003.htm [Accessed September 19, 2016].

Policy Exchange (2016) Too Hot to Handle. London.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: