BRE's Gillian Charlesworth makes the case for a government-funded information campaign that can demystify heat pumps and other low carbon technologies
I was, like many BusinessGreen readers, impressed by the comprehensiveness of Chris Skidmore MP's Net Zero Review, which argued that net zero is "the growth opportunity of the 21st century". It was a helpful reframing of the economic case for net zero, with its 129 recommendations covering areas including how business can be better supported, how we make better use of infrastructure and how we deliver more energy efficient homes.
But forgive me if I am a little cynical about whether this will be the intervention which finally makes the difference. Delivering more energy efficient homes and weaning Britons off fossil fuels has been a central plank of successive governments, yet there remains a consensus that the UK has fallen short of our supposed ambitions.
It is not, of course, the current government's fault that the UK faces the significant challenge of overcoming one of the world's oldest and least energy efficient building stocks. But we are some way off ensuring that the UK's buildings - perhaps the most diverse in the world - will see gas replaced by a mix of low carbon heating technologies by 2050. However, the Conservatives have not helped matters in the last ten years by allowing new inefficient homes to be built at a time when the technology was readily available to build net zero homes.
Progress is too slow. A sense of urgency is distinctly lacking. Legislating for the Future Homes Standard so that no new homes will be built with a gas boiler from 2025 will be central to achieving the 2050 goal, but the poor performance of existing and previous schemes casts doubt over how effective any future government legislation will be.
A recent inquiry carried out by the Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee revealed that only a third of the money allocated to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme - designed to encourage UK households to upgrade their gas boiler to a heat pump - has been used. Recent polling by BRE has shown that the vast majority of UK homeowners wouldn't feel confident explaining how heat pumps work or the potential benefits of installing one in their home. In fact, only 12 per cent of Britons would feel confident explaining a heat pump's benefits in the context of heat decarbonisation.
Yet heat pumps are likely to be the dominant technology that will transition UK households and industry to clean heat. This acute lack of awareness among the public will be a major barrier to overcome if we are to see any meaningful shift in sentiment towards heat decarbonisation. While the government has successfully rolled out a public awareness campaign on reducing energy usage, with the aim of bringing down domestic and commercial energy bills, is there not scope for a similar programme with the aim of demystifying low carbon heating technologies?
The UK government has set an ambitious target of 600,000 heat pumps installations a year by 2028. It's highly questionable whether this is realistic, given that we currently have one of the lowest heat pump installation rates in Europe. A clear and targeted public awareness campaign, focused specifically on low carbon heating technologies, will be vital in driving greater uptake of heat pumps, reducing overall energy demand, and helping the UK meets its targets.
While the government has estimated that the UK will need 50,000 qualified workers to meet this target, the Energy and Utilities Alliance has suggested that the real number of workers required is roughly 200 per cent more. Making it easier for households and businesses alike to transition to heat pumps simply won't be possible without making sure the workforce is resourced and reskilled in areas that will enable the manufacturing and distribution of heat pumps.
Local authorities will also be instrumental in supporting households and businesses in their bid to decarbonise their properties, given they will be responsible for developing energy systems that are suitable to their areas. To this end, central government will need to ensure they are adequately resourced to meet this challenge, and should look to Wales and Scotland for useful lessons.
By extension, stimulating greater competition in the UK heat pump manufacturing sector will also bring down installation costs, meaning these become less of a barrier to take-up than they are today. However, there also needs to be a recognition that there's no ‘one-size-fits-all' approach to heat decarbonisation. While heat pumps will dominate the mix, they will work alongside other technologies - including heat networks, hydrogen, biofuel-based heating, and smart, flexible heat - to fully decarbonise the UK's building stock over the long-term.
Recent research by the Behavioural Insights Team, part of the innovation charity Nesta, revealed that the UK public is highly supportive of the net zero agenda. However, the same research revealed that 88 per cent of respondents felt it was too difficult to make sustainable choices because of many of the barriers I've set out here.
With targeted investment in green industries and a greater focus on communicating and explaining the benefits of low carbon heating technologies - as well as how they tie into the UK's net zero agenda - the Government can capitalise on this overwhelming public support. However, failure to do so could see it dwindle.
We've spent a long time alongside other likeminded organisations calling on the government to implement a national retrofit strategy. A localised strategy to raise awareness of heat pumps and other solutions, spearheaded by councils, industry and other key bodies could provide clear opportunities to involve the public in the nation's net zero journey.
As Chris Skidmore urges in his recent review, net zero represents an "historic opportunity" for the UK which can benefit people and businesses up and down the country. Before we're able to reap those benefits, though, we've got a long way to go to ensure the country is able to play its part. The Government will inevitably need to make greater funding available, starting with more targeted assistance to local authorities, households and businesses to get action going at scale. Failure to do so will see net zero and heat decarbonisation continue to be discussed at length, but not delivered in time - and time is not on our side.
Gillian Charlesworth is chief executive of the Building Research Establishment (BRE)
* This article was originally published here