Time running out for the humble gas boiler

By Jess Ralston, Analyst @jessralston2

Published:10 September 2020

The UK’s first climate-specific Citizen’s Assembly has given unprecedented insight into the public opinion of the different pathways to the net zero target.

It reveals a public willingness to change various aspects of life, many of which have not been impacted in the UK’s emissions reductions to-date.

Headlines focussing on electric vehicles, frequent flier levies and appetite for new roads were aplenty when the report was released, but inside the report there is much much more.

One of the most urgent decisions on domestic climate action is how to clean up heat, bringing an end to our national reliance on the gas boiler and incentivising uptake of low-carbon alternatives.

To the detriment of national climate action, the UK remains addicted to dirty heat. As a nation we install around 4,500 new gas boilers every day, adding up to 1.6 million per year, in both new and existing homes. Each of these will remain in use for 12-15 years, giving a sense of urgency on the future direction of low carbon heat.

Citizen's Assembly support a ban on gas boilers
Figure 1. The vast majority of assembly attendees strongly agreed with a ban on gas boilers in 2030 or 2035 (40%) or agreed with it (46%). 6% didn’t mind or were unsure, whilst just 6% disagreed and only 3% strongly disagreed. Source: Citizen’s Assembly, Final Report.

86%

Strikingly, 86% of assembly members either supported or strongly supported a ban on the sale of gas boilers between 2030 and 2035.

This is one of the clearest signals to date that the end of the ‘boiler era’ is nigh.

Whereas clean heating options, such as heat pumps, hydrogen, district heating received overwhelming backing from assembly members. Overall, though, a ban on new gas boilers was one of the most popular policy options proposed.

This builds on remarkably similar findings in a recent BEIS report, which showed appetite for change with nine in ten taking part ‘regard(ing) targets for emissions overall, and heating specifically, to be important’. The key difference between the BEIS research and Citizen’s Assembly is the degree of education on aspects and pathways to net zero.

In fact, this was highlighted in the BEIS work, stating ‘the majority of the general population had not heard of low-carbon heating technologies’ and that ‘these findings suggest low levels of knowledge of what the transition might actually be to’.

BEIS research supports the Climate Assembly's findings
Figure 2. BEIS research of nearly 3,000 people in 2018 shows that there is substantial support for all theoretical policy measures, but that phasing out gas boilers for more environmentally friendly systems was popular with two-thirds. It was more acceptable than phasing out petrol and diesel cars, which has already been legislated by Government. Source: BEIS, Transforming Heating Public Attitudes Research.

Those at the Citizens Assembly were informed by experts on the specific pathways to decarbonisation, whereas in the BEIS survey almost a third of gas-users stated they were on ‘environmentally-friendly heating’. The Climate Assembly results show that a move away from dirty fossil fuels is desired rather than feared, once the public are aware of the aims and options available.

Back on track?

A shift to non-fossil heat between 2030 and 2035, as per the question proposed to the assembly, would help drastically with decarbonisation targets.

On current installation rates, a 2030 ban on boiler sales would tackle over half (52%) of households by 2040, and by 2045 almost the equivalent of all of the houses on the gas grid (76%, with 84% on the gas grid) would be on track to net zero, through switching to low carbon heat.

This, of course, relies on the alternatives of electrified heat and hydrogen for heating being 100% low carbon or ‘green’ in generation.

Boiler ban would help reduce emissions from the UK's homes
Figure 3. Estimates of the number of clean heating systems (cumulative) installed to 2045, assuming the current number of annual gas boilers installations remains (1.6 million) for renewable heating and the percentage of households in Great Britain that this equates to. Sources: ONS Household Projections for England, Statistics Wales and National Record for Scotland (data extrapolated to 2045, assuming continuation of trends), BEIS sub-national estimates of households not connected to the gas network and BSRIA’s World Market Intelligence Division data for boiler sales.

A later date of 2035 would still see significant change, albeit delayed. Around half of homes would still be heated by fossil fuels by 2045, leaving some heavy lifting in the final years before the UK’s net zero deadline.

This could leave the Government open to criticism, as a 2035 ban would leave emissions remaining high from the residential sector; analysis reveals that emissions savings are dwarfed compared to a ban occurring in 2030; 220MtCO2e in 2035 versus 480MtCO2e in 2030.

Budgets

The UK is not on track to meet the 5th Carbon Budget, with homes representing one of the more significant barriers.

The CCC’s central scenario – its lowest cost pathway to the previous 80% emissions reduction target – sees residential sector emissions averaging just under 60MtCO2e over the five years of the budget, an 8.6% fall from the 65.2MtCO2e emitted in 2019.

A switch to clean heat, incentivised through stopping sales of dirty systems, would save approximately 4MtCO2e after one year in existence, highlighting the effect these actions – currently believed to be unpopular within Government – can achieve.

The impending release of the sixth carbon budget, and associated steepening of the least-cost pathway to 2050, only makes this more pressing.

The Government’s upcoming Heat and Buildings Strategy, as well as the Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review, are a perfect opportunity to put this right.

And now the will of the people clearly backs a move away from dirty heat, the number of excuses for a lack of ambition are dwindling.

Share:

comments powered by Disqus

Related Articles

Clean heat – the UK government could do worse than look north of the border

Read more

The real test of a green recovery is still to come

Read more

'Green' recovery: A week of fine principles

Read more