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Climate gap report: heating

The next ten years will be crucial in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown. Yet, according to new research by Ethical Consumer, we are not cutting emissions fast enough across any of our key lifestyle areas - including in heating our homes. So what changes do we need to make when it comes to our heating and how far are we from getting there?

Rob Harrison and Josie Wexler discuss the findings from Closing the Climate Gap - A Report on Progress Towards Sustainable Consumer Lifestyles in the UK, a new report by Ethical Consumer.

Our heating accounts for around 14% of our total emissions. Yet, in 2021, the Climate Gap report found that emissions from heating are not being cut fast enough to meet the UK's 2050 net zero target.

If we are to reverse this trend, the report highlights three key actions that all consumers must take.

  1. Insulate our homes
  2. Do smarter heating
  3. Choose heat pumps where possible

On this page, we explore these actions: why they are necessary, how far we are from them, and the changes that businesses and goverments can make to ensure we achieve these goals. We call on consumers to not only reduce their own emissions in the areas we have identified, but to also consider getting engaged with political campaigns trying to persuade the government and companies to take some of the actions identified too.

What is the Climate Gap report?

Ethical Consumer's first Climate Gap report was published in October 2021, to track progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK. The report helps identify how consumers, governments and companies can work together to help fix the climate crisis.

Called 'Closing the Climate Gap', the report's aim is to track the gap between our current combined consumption emissions and where they need to be by 2030. A second key aim of the project is to produce a simplified list of key actions for consumers, companies and governments.

The report has four sections on the areas where our lifestyle climate impacts are the biggest: food, housing, transport and consumer goods, covering 75% of combined total consumer emissions. It compares where consumer behaviour is in these areas against 2030 targets from reports issued by the UK Government's own Climate Change Committee (CCC). Read more about the Climate Change Committee's targets on our campaign page.

Heating and the climate gap

Heating accounts for around 14% of our emissions. About 77% of that is from homes, 14% commercial buildings and 9% public buildings.14

The first priority is reducing heating use through insulation and behaviour change. The CCC suggests a 12% reduction, but some houses achieve much more – in the extreme cases more than 50%.

Achieving the 12% involves: insulation of 3 million cavity walls, 11 million lofts, 3 million solid walls and 3 million floors, including some top-ups of existing insulation. Cuts from behavioural measures contribute around 3% of the 12% reduction – more than a fifth of the total. This comes from multizone control (heating only portions of the house), some other smarter management using real-time displays, and low-flow shower heads.

Fuelling our heating

Once we’ve reduced our heating use as much as possible, we then need to power the heating for our homes, while ditching our gas boilers. A crucial question is therefore, what power source should we use?

There is general agreement that the limited supply of biomass should not be used for heating but is best reserved for other sectors. Biomass is like gold dust in a decarbonised world. Not only can you make fuels from it that are basically identical to fossil fuels, with all of those handy features that made us dependent on them in the first place – easy to store, high energy density – but you can also use it as a ‘net negative’ if you preserve it in buildings or burn it in a centralised point with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Thus, you really want to save it for the places where you can make the best use of its potential. In the CCC’s scenarios, some is used as back up for the electricity grid for when the wind doesn’t blow, some in industry, some in the more awkward parts of the transport sector, and some as wood in construction.

Another option is direct electric heating, which can be used in desperate cases, but if everyone used it then it would raise peak electricity demand too much. Low-carbon district heating (powered, for example, by waste heat from industrial facilities) can be used where there are suitable source of heat – it covers 18% of homes by 2050 in the CCC figures we have used. But it’s limited.

That leaves just two options for most of our heating: heat pumps or hydrogen. Significant use of hydrogen is still a way off, and the CCC estimates that once all costs are taken into account, it is unlikely to be cheaper than heat pumps anyway. Thus only 11% of the houses in its scenario use hydrogen in 2050.15 All its scenarios are strongly heat pump led.

This means that 1.1 million heat pumps are being installed every year by 2030.

Heating Report Card 2021

The report card below summarises our key findings on heating, covering around 14% of our total emissions. It looks at how much we must cut our emissions by by 2030 to meet UK targets on heating, and whether we are moving fast enough towards these goals. It then highlights the key actions we must - as consumers, governments and businesses - take, and how willing we are to do so.

Heating Report Card 2021

 

Home insulation installations Heat pumps installed Overall emissions from heating
Consumer-related actions needed by 2030 (from a 2019 baseline)* 14 million total installations (cumulative) 1.1 million installations per year 23% reduction
Where are we in the most recent year’s figures? 197,000 installations (cumulative installations from 2019) 36,000 installations (2020) 87 million tonnes CO2e (2019)
The current climate gap. What is still needed? 13.8 million installations 1.06 million installations per year 19 million tonnes CO2e reduction (23%)
What were the figures in the previous year? 100,000 installations (2019) 33,000 installed 88 million tonnes C02e (2018)
Are we moving fast enough? Not moving fast enough Not moving fast enough Not moving fast enough
What does government need to do? Subsidise. Provide clear and consistent framework. Mandate and enforce quality standards. Subsidise. Provide clear and consistent framework. Mandate and enforce quality standards. Subsidise. Provide clear and consistent framework. Mandate and enforce quality standards.
What do companies need to do? Insulate commercial buildings. Develop creative funding instruments.
Address the skills gaps.
Install heat pumps in commercial buildings. Develop creative funding instruments. Address the skills gaps. Reduce demand through smarter heating.
What do consumers need to do? Insulate your home. Get a heat pump if suitable for your home. Reduce demand through smarter heating.
Where are consumer intentions? 44% had 3 or more types of insulation already installed. 19% likely to choose heat pump. 50% willing to reduce how much they heat their home.

*in the CCC’s ‘Balanced Scenario’

c. = circa or approximately; CCC = Climate Change Committee

Find out more about the report

A summary of the longer report and the other impacts areas is available on our campaign page.

Download the full 40 page report as a PDF. The PDf version includes the evidence that sits behind all this information.

We will be updating the report annually, to provide science-based targets for consumers each year.

Closing the Climate Gap: Ethical Consumer Week 2021

Join us 16 - 22 October for Ethical Consumer Week 2021 which is all about closing the climate gap.

Sessions average 1-2 hours long, and you can book one or many sessions! Most are free or 'pay as you feel' tickets, and all are online.

Sessions are focused around themes include heating, clothing, finance, food, transport, technology and retail, with experienced knowledgable guest speakers.

Click here for the programme and to book tickets

References

1. CCC, 2020, The Sixth Carbon Budget, Sector Specific Summary: Buildings
2. CCC, December 2020, The Sixth Carbon Budget, the UK’s path to net zero.