(4) Residential

The Residential sector accounts for 13.7% of UK emissions and this largely comes down to natural gas as a fuel for heating and cooking. 

As shown in the diagram below, the biggest single use of natural gas in the UK is in domestic homes for heating and cooking purposes.

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Source: DUKES table 1.1.1, Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES), Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)

Current trends

In 2015 there was a increase in demand for gas of 2.7% in the UK. Carbon Briefattribute this to cooler weather compared to a year earlier, leading to higher gas consumption in the domestic heating sector.

When you look at it in a little more detail, there was actually a 2.2% reduction in how much natural gas was used in power stations and a 4.9% increase in domestic consumption according to the DUKES report, so this is more pronounced than it first looks.

Aside from the cooler weather, for me this highlights our failure to even begin to transition to low carbon alternatives in terms of domestic heating and cooking in the UK or reduce our demand through better energy efficiency.

According to the National Grid’s Gas Demand Manager, Stephen Marland around 83% of us (or 23 million properties) use gas central heating.

“Over the past four decades, the gas boiler has been in the ascendency for home heating, but it wasn’t always like that. In 1970, fewer than 40% of homes used gas. That all changed when newly discovered UK natural gas provided a solution for clean air and affordable central heating.”

But things now need to change again. The Paris Agreement means that the UK has pledged, along with almost 200 other nations, to almost completely decarbonise all energy use soon after mid-century. Whilst this is a long time off, the task ahead is huge. As Stephen Marland continues:

“Although the gas boiler has set the benchmark for what customers expect, there is a problem: gas homes still account for 70% of carbon emissions from the housing stock. Even with better insulation and more efficient boilers, this is incompatible with long-term climate change targets. Simply, we will need to use far less gas in the future.”

A variety of technologies are available for heating our homes. Heating options include wood and pellet heaters, active solar heating and heat pumps, which are used for both heating and cooling. But they all come at a cost and often require more space.

To my mind therefore, policymakers should be focusing initially on energy efficiency to reduce demand for gas central heating whilst alternative technologies develop further. A combination of proper insulation, air sealing, and energy-efficient windows and doors will help ensure that our homes are both comfortable and energy efficient.

Sadly, the UK government killed off its scheme to insulate homes because it says take-up had been too low, but twelve months on has still not come up with a replacement policy.

Policy measures must therefore achieve the following:

1) Set an energy efficiency target based on advice from the CCC with interim milestones.

This could be based on the MEES system or a new grading system, but will need to show how we get from where we are now to net zero carbon housing by 2030 ideally, or by 2050 at the latest. Whatever is needed to meet our 4th and 5th carbon budgets and our commitments under the Paris Agreement.

2) Offer incentives and subsidies to encourage people to improve insulation in existing buildings over the next 10-15 years

This should allow us to make steady progress towards the above target. It needs to be like the Green Deal, but a whole lot better. If take up is poor, the offering isn’t good enough. It will need to be reviewed annually and ratcheted up as time goes on if necessary.

3) Outline the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) requirements for all buildings to be sold or let.

Minimum ratings should be tightened every few years with full transparency through to 2030, in line with above targets. The ultimate goal should be that all existing buildings reach the highest standard (net zero carbon status) by the necessary date.

4) Promote alternative fuel sources for domestic heating.

This needs to be done in a way that makes alternatives a more economic choice for the public when choosing new appliances and heating systems from April 2017.

There are millions of boilers already installed and gas central heating boilers are still the preferred choice for most people when buying new or replacement boilers in the UK, and many are likely to last for 30 years or more. That means that a boiler installed today could still be in working order as we approach mid-century.

There is an urgent need therefore to find alternative heating sources otherwise emissions from this sector will be locked in for decades to come. The government need to conduct an urgent independent review of all available technologies and then financially support the best option via government subsidies.

5) Reinstate the Zero Carbon Homes policy.

All new homes should be zero carbon by 2020. A 3-year lead in time should be sufficient to allow industry to adjust given how close we came in 2015.

6) Gas cooking appliances to be largely phased out by 2025.

This can be achieved by banning the sale of any new gas cooking appliances from 2020 and by putting into law that by 2025 all gas cooking appliances must be replaced with electric ovens and hobs before properties can be sold or let.

7) Ban the sale of new gas boilers from 2025.

It will take time for new technologies to bed down, but it is necessary to put a marker down now and set a clear direction of travel for both industry and the buying public. Whilst a ban may seem an extreme measure, it will drive innovation and competition in the new markets created, which will in turn drive down costs, so that subsidies can be gradually phased out.

8) By 2030, all gas heating appliances must be replaced with alternative heating appliances before properties can be sold or let.