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.
- Insulate our homes
- Do smarter heating
- 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.