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COP26: Heat in the built environment is one of the biggest climate problems we face

By Clade, a member of the Sustainable Energy Association

Heat in the built environment is one of the biggest climate problems we face. For years it has been neglected and now we have to face up to it. The role of buildings is under-valued by society. They provide protection, safety, places to work, live, administer care, store food and many other essential functions. Within our buildings are the systems, such as heating, which breathe life into what would otherwise be little more than a dark, cold box. Yet, to the majority of us this is under-valued and taken for granted, just like fresh, clean drinking water. Why does a litre of water which is essential for life cost pennies, whilst a sparkly useless diamond sell for thousands?

Is it because we don’t value services in buildings or because we don’t know the real price? Combustion technology has been the main method of heating buildings since fire was discovered, but it’s a large carbon emitter. Now there are nearly 8 billion people on Earth, that’s a lot of heat and hot water and a tremendous amount of carbon emissions. We don’t (and have never) paid for the pollution of the atmosphere, but now we must or we risk catastrophe.

Successive Governments in this country have failed to make zero carbon buildings happen despite several opportunities. Improvements to fabric and insulation have materialised but building standards are still poor compared to where they could be. For example, houses built to the Passive House standard need almost no heat. I know this from personal experience because 14 years ago I built one. Some people choose to improve their homes but it can be expensive, which excludes many from even having the choice.

Away from our homes it is difficult for individuals to make a difference through personal choice. When it comes to office buildings, industrial units, hospitals, railway stations there is little an individual can do. We need systemic change to make a difference.

The vast majority of heat in buildings can be provided by electrification and the most efficient form is heat pumps. The UK has decarbonised the power supply significantly, and it keeps getting better as the cost of wind and solar renewables fall. Using low carbon power in heat pumps results in very high efficiencies, many times that of any other technology.

There are two systemic barriers to widespread heat pump adoption ; 1) carbon price that is too low and not widely applied which therefore continues to favour emissions and 2) the low tax rates that are applied to gas when compared to electricity. Commercial gas prices are as low as 1.3 p/KWh which is almost giving it away and there is virtually no tax paid. Electricity prices are higher and it carries all of the energy tax burden at over 20% rate. The UK Government has the power to change this situation and enable the wide-spread decarbonisation of heat. These are the commitments that I would like to see Boris make before COP26.

Friday, September 3rd, 2021