Net Zero by 2030
Portsmouth City Council unanimously decided to declare a climate emergency in March of 2019. This set an ambitious target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2030. ‘Net Zero’ basically means that the council aims to achieve a balance between carbon emissions and the carbon removed from the atmosphere. This offset can be achieved by reducing carbon emissions in one sector, or by directly removing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere through the planting of trees, or the use of carbon capture and storage, for example.
The council recently announced its greenest budget ever, with £37 million proposed to be invested in environmentally friendly projects.
The majority of household emissions come from heating your home, and 18% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from residential heating. In light of this, Chancellor Philip Hammond recently announced that gas central heating will be banned for all new build properties by 2025. This does not mean that properties which are already built and using gas central heating will have to rip their systems out, and it does not mean that gas central heating cannot be installed as a retrofit measure in existing homes.
Gas central heating is up to three times cheaper to run than electric systems. It is a vitally important measure to reduce the risks to those living in fuel poverty.
12.1% of Portsmouth is considered to be fuel poor – these households cannot afford to keep their homes warm and healthy. Many will have to pick between heating their home and feeding their family, leading to many living in damp and cold homes which exacerbates physical and mental illnesses and impacts child development. There are clear links between cold homes and the amount of excess winter deaths across the UK, of which there were 23,000 in 2018-19.
There are currently three sources of funding within England which support the installation of gas central heating in vulnerable households. New regulations from Ofgem mean that insulation measures must go ahead before any new system will be funded – this will reduce heating demand as heat will be better retained within the property, ensuring energy efficiency.
It might seem counter-productive to continue to install gas central heating in properties when we are aiming for carbon neutrality. However, as ambitious as the 2030 target is, the current energy infrastructure could not match the demand for clean energy. If all existing homes which currently use gas central heating were to switch to electricity in the hope of reducing their carbon emissions, the grid would need massive reinforcement works to accommodate the huge increase in demand.
If these homes then moved to electric storage heaters, they would be faced with one of the most expensive options within the UK, with higher carbon emissions than most systems – including gas central heating. Providing sufficient electricity to meet Britain’s peak winter demand would add enormously to the challenge of de-carbonising power generation, and it is likely that these peaks in demand would have to be met with fossil fuel generated power.
If the future decarbonisation plan involves creating ‘Green Gas’ by blending hydrogen into the natural gas mix, up to two thirds of the cost of a gas central heating system will still be able to work, meaning the current funding will not be rendered useless in the future if this change to the system is made. It is likely that the boiler installed alongside the system will have reached the end of its life before any adaptations are required, anyway.
Biomethane, the product of anaerobic digestion, is already being fed into the gas grid. This is a green source of gas, and requires no changes to the current gas central heating systems being installed. The council already recognises the benefits of creating biomethane, and are currently trialling a food waste recycling method which will result in the creation of this natural resource by sending the waste to an anaerobic digestion plant. If the main gas mix was to include more of this biomethane, it would reduce the carbon emissions associated with heating.
Renewable heating systems such as air source and ground source heat pumps have been raised as the key to decarbonising heat. This technology works by absorbing heat from the outside air or the ground to heat radiators and underfloor heating systems. They require electricity to run, but the heat they extract is a natural renewable source. However, these systems have a high upfront installation cost which will be too much for most households even taking the government Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (which is set to end in March 2021) in to account. They require the property they are installed in to be very energy efficient in order to be cost effective – currently, the majority of the housing stock in the UK would not meet these requirements, meaning these systems could cost occupiers huge amounts to run.
A planned out and realistic route to decarbonising heat is needed before support to fuel poor and vulnerable households is withdrawn. Despite the ambitious net zero targets, the affordability of technologies to support this are not yet readily available. The UK government plans to publish a road map to low carbon heat this year; this should provide direction for the future of the installation of gas central heating systems in the UK – however, we cannot run the risk of leaving vulnerable households to live in cold homes whilst the UK draws up these future decarbonisation plans.
87.9% of Portsmouth homes are not considered to be living in fuel poverty. It makes more sense in the meanwhile to target energy efficiency measures to reduce carbon emissions in these households. The Council’s recently released “Energy and Water at Home Strategy” outlines how this will be achieved
Written by: Anttonia Lindup