The heat is on in race to make homes zero carbon
Your boiler might have to be replaced. All of our homes may end up having to be virtually rebuilt. And new energy networks may have to be created from scratch. Very soon, the Government will unveil its strategy paper for decarbonising heating and homes.
Over the next decade, the way we light and most of all keep warm the places where we live will have to change radically if the UK is to have any hope of meeting its commitment to a ·net zero" economy. With the right strategy, the UK could minimise the costs, and build some new industries at the same time. The trouble is, the Johnson administration is not known
, to put it mildly, for making hard choices. But when it comes to moving towards net-zero homes it will have to - and in reality after zigzagging all over the place, it has only one more chance to get this right.
It may not attract many headlines, or set many pulses racing, but creating carbon-neutral homes is hugely important for creating a net-zero society.
Residential property and heating by themselves account for 40pc of CO2 emissions. Even worse, fixing that involves some very difficult choices. Switching to greener power generation is expensive, but involves only a handful of very large companies. So long as you pay the bill you can make it happen. Likewise, cars, which account for 18pc of emissions, are relatively straightforward as well. There are lots of mass-market electric models starting to roll off the production lines, and most vehicles have to be replaced every IO years anyway. Throw in a few subsidies for switching, and it's relatively straightforward.
But homes and heating? This is where it gets really challenging. If boilers hav
e to be replaced, that could turn into a bill of thousands of pounds for the average household. Everyone quite likes buying a new car, but no one ever got excited about a new boiler.
Forcing people to replace one that already works is not going to be popular. N
ext, it is still far from clear what form of energy they should be using. And redesigning homes to make them more energy efficient is very difficult in a country with houses that are mostly very old.
Out of the 24m homes in the UK, 9.4m were built before the Second World War, and Sm of them before 1900. They didn't worry so much about climate change back in those days. By contrast only about 3m homes have been built this century. It will be a daunting task to upgrade all those properties, and an expensive one.
It remains to be seen what strategy the Government adopts, and how much sense it makes. So far, the track record is not encouraging. The Green Homes Grant scheme was a massive flop, and that is putting it mildly. There has meant to have been a "hydrogen" strategy for ages, but there is still no sign of it. Of the £9.2bn the Government pledged to spend in its 2019 manifesto on decarbonising our homes only £2.9bn has so far been forthcoming. It is a mess.
Even so, the UK should have three clear objectives if it is to have any chance of making this work successfully. First, minimise the cost. We don't want to have to spend tens of billions on this at a time when we are also trying to figure out how to pay for the
Cmd-19 crisis, and re-make our economy as we adjust to life outside the European Union. The Government ,viii ha
ve to subsidise some of the transformation, but there ,viii be limits to how much it can afford to pay.
The UK already has some of the most ridiculously unaffordable housing in the world. The last thing we want to do is make that first step on the property ladder even harder. Whatever solutions are chosen have to be as cost effective as possible.
Next, let's tum it into an opportunity to build new industries. Big flashy projects such as electric cars, solar energy and tidal barrages will always grab all the headlines. Grandstanding politicians such as President Joe Biden, France's president Emmanuel Macron and, come to think of it, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, will keep on pouring billions of dollars or euros into taking a lead in whatever is that week's "strategic industry of the future". By contrast, home heating is small scale and, if we are being honest, quite boring.
And yet, if we get it right, and just as importantly do so before our main industrial rivals, the UK could create lots of specialist niche businesses that will thrive
for generations to come.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make it market-driven. We already have a government that is much too enthusiastic about industrial strategies, subsidies and micromanaging the economy. Other countries will have an have an endless parade of "green national champions". None of them will be very efficient, and all of them will gobble up lots of public money.
The proper role of government, even if it is not very exciting, is simply to set the standards but then allow entrepreneurs and private companies to work out the best way of meeting them. Their solutions will be a lot cheaper, and more effective, than anything that the state can come up with.
Making our homes net zero will be the biggest challenge in combating climate change. Nothing else comes close, either in the scale of the contribution it will make to reducing carbon emissions or to the impact on everyday life. For the past few years the UK has flip-flopped from one halfhearted solution to another.
We have perhaps one final chance to get it right - and it starts now.
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