Chris Bond and Will Sutton are engineers and authors of the recent OSF paper Delivering Net Zero for Heating of Buildings – A Challenge for the Scottish Government.
Rishi Sunak’s various net zero u-turns last week on everything from EV cars to electric heat pumps has prompted dismay from environmentalists, and even led Scottish Green Minister Patrick Harvie to warn of the upsurge in “climate denial” in the UK.
A more measured analysis is necessary. As authors of a recent Our Scottish Future paper calling for more focus to be placed on the implementation of our net zero targets, we believe Mr Sunak’s speech has once again highlighted the need for a serious UK wide strategy to build the infrastructure we need to make the change to net zero. We can all argue about whether targets should be set for 2030 or 2035 or 2050, but these dates are meaningless unless more thinking is done on how we go about the immense task of reform.
One crucial element to this huge task is to take the public on the journey. Looking solely at Mr Sunak’s changes relating to Heating of Buildings, there is a welcome acknowledgement that the transition to net zero, especially in home heating, will always require public support.
But Mr Sunak and, in Scotland, First Minister Humza Yousaf, need to be clearer with people about he state of the technology available and the trade-offs that are unavoidable. They need to get the balance right between the carrot of financial support and the stick of regulation.
Turning to how we transform our homes, Mr Sunak and Mr Yousaf should spell it out – that if the technology available, such as Air Source Heat Pumps, is flawed, limited or too costly then it is foolish to regulate its adoption in every household. Many homes, if well-insulated, can benefit from ASHPs, but experts agree that for 20% or more of homes ASHPs are unsuitable. This particularly affects flats, homes with Combi-boilers, buildings subject to planning restrictions, and hard-to-insulate properties. In tenement heavy Scotland, it’s something that affects us in particular.
Sadly, we can’t spend a fortune making every tenement block in Glasgow draft-free nor stick a heat pump on the outside of every tenement flat. So Mr Sunak’s change in regulation from 100% ban on new gas and oil boilers to a target of 80% uptake is a welcome pragmatism as is the increase in financial support.
However, where Mr Sunak went wrong was in abandoning the regulations requiring homeowners and landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their properties primarily through better insulation. This continues the shameful neglect and dithering by the governments failing to drive up levels of insulation and energy efficiency, condemning millions to living in fuel poverty in cold, damp homes. For example, why did the UK Government shut down its Energy Efficiency Taskforce last year? This was a group set up to reduce energy use in homes, businesses and factories by improving their efficiency yet it no longer exists.
Nor was there any acknowledgement from Mr Sunak that the high price of electricity is emerging as a major deterrent to the electrification of the UK, whether to power ASHPs or EVs. In parallel, there was no clarity about the costs, scope, or supply chain development needed to restructure the electricity grid and distribution systems.
What’s needed? A Net Zero Delivery Task Force
The greatest missing element – in both Mr Sunak’s plan and the incredibly ambitious proposals set out by Mr Yousaf – is a comprehensive plan to deliver Net Zero. To be clear, the transition being proposed is the biggest, most expensive, yet most necessary infrastructure project in the history of the UK – ever. Yet Governments in Westminster and Holyrood are tinkering and playing games for political advantage.
Something must change. Our Governments need to cooperate to set up a UK Net Zero Delivery Task Force. As was the case with the Covid Vaccination Task Force, it should be a publicly-owned body at arms-length from government but ultimately under the democratic control of all the Home Nations’ administrations. Creating such a Task Force would help us to stimulate innovation for improved technology at national level and positively empower and devolve responsibility for local action to local authorities and communities.
Net Zero is too important to become a pre-election football. We need a plan, and we need to work on it together.
You can read Bond and Sutton’s report here