Lukewarm: the Heat and Buildings Strategy lacks ambition

By Will McMyn

Today saw the publication of a veritable avalanche of climate-related documentation by the government. Nestled among it all was the Heat and Buildings Strategy, which comes about a year later than originally promised. Anyone that had hoped those twelve months were spent ratcheting up the strategy’s ambition will be sorely disappointed.

The heating of our homes and buildings is responsible for over 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing these emissions is one of the knottiest of our decarbonisation challenges and meeting it is going to take a bold vision, a carefully thought out and long-term plan, and a lot of money. The Heat and Buildings Strategy runs to some 200 pages but offers none of these things.

The headline initiative is a new scheme to give households grants of up to £5,000 to install electric heat pumps in an attempt to wean the nation off its gas boilers. But the funding is capped at £450 million or, to put it another way, 90,000 grants of £5,000 each over a three-year period.  Given that the government’s target is to install 600,000 heat pumps every year, this funding is barely going to make a dent.

An air-source heat pump costs something like £7-14,000 to install (and a ground-source version can be double that or more). So even with the grant, it will be cheaper for most households to simply install another gas boiler. The new funding might just tip the balance for those relatively well-off and environmentally aware households for whom the full-whack cost of a heat pump was previously a slightly higher price than they were prepared to pay for salving their eco-consciences. In other words, the grants might bolster eco-bragging rights at middle-class dinner parties, but they won’t make much of a difference to our national carbon emissions.

There are some other things in the strategy: some R&D funding to drive down the cost of heat pumps and make them easier to install; new money available to public sector organisations to improve the energy efficiency of their facilities; and cash for local authorities to upgrade social housing and the homes of low-income households not connected to the gas grid. All of this is fine as far as it goes, but hardly amounts to a radical and comprehensive strategy commensurate with the issue at hand.

And there were some notable things missing. Where is the new, much-needed, mass-market energy efficiency retrofit scheme to replace the terrible, botched Green Homes Grant (which I wrote about here earlier this year) and to bring the UK’s notoriously draughty homes up to scratch? The Insulate Britain protestors have been given no reason to put down their tubes of super glue.

Has the government put the brakes on its long-trailed plans to shift environmental levies off electricity bills and onto gas bills (which would improve the economics of heat pumps for householders) because of the daunting politics of making gas more expensive at a time when wholesale prices have surged to record levels? And does delaying for another five years any decision on whether to repurpose the national gas network to carry hydrogen really show the kind of bold and decisive approach that is needed?

If the government’s ability to broker a satisfactory outcome from COP26 will depend in part on its global credentials as a climate leader, let’s hope not many of those involved in the negotiations will have read the Heat and Buildings Strategy.