Media Release

“Boiler backlash could derail Net Zero agenda” – think-tank

Ministers should urgently launch a major campaign of public education about the need to reduce carbon emissions from British homes by replacing conventional gas boilers, a think-tank says today.

Unless politicians explain to voters the need to replace millions of boilers with new low-carbon technology, the cost and disruption of that change could trigger a backlash against the Net Zero agenda, the Social Market Foundation warned.

A majority of the public do not have a good understanding of the need to decarbonise home heating or know about the alternatives to gas heating, SMF polling found: less than 20% of voters even know about the technologies that could replace a gas boiler. (See Note 1)

Public awareness must increase significantly before a mandatory switchover from gas heating begins, the think-tank said. More taxpayer-funded support for low-income households replacing gas boilers must also be put in place first.

Minsters are considering a mandatory switchover policy, which could prohibit the purchase of new gas boilers after a certain date.

In a new report, the SMF said that a mandatory switchover rule will be necessary to reduce domestic carbon emissions, but said ministers must first demonstrate “concerted national leadership” to increase public awareness, give confidence to business, and support the development of a low-carbon home heat market for consumers.

That leadership should include the conversion of all government and public buildings to alternative heating systems. To set an example, the Palace of Westminster should commit to ending the use of natural gas as part of its planned refurbishment. (See Note 2)

The SMF report, entitled Boiler Alert, is part of the think-tank’s Towards Net Zero project, which is sponsored by ScottishPower. The SMF retains full editorial independence.

Energy use in homes accounts for about 14% of UK greenhouse gas emissions with an additional 6% attributed to electricity consumption in homes. (See Note 3) To put Britain on track for Net Zero by 2050, home emissions need to fall by at least 24% (from 1990 levels) over the next ten years.

Today, just 7% of homes in the UK currently have low-carbon, electric heating while nearly 85% (24.5 million homes) are heated by natural gas. (See Note 4) A near-full decarbonisation of heat will require replacing gas boilers at a rate of nearly 1 million a year.

Despite the scale and importance of decarbonising home heat, the SMF found only limited awareness of the issue.

Key findings from the polling commissioned for the report include:

  • Around two-thirds of people have limited or no knowledge of the concept of Net Zero, and many who do recognise the term cannot correctly recognise its meaning. 60% said they had heard of Net Zero while 29% said they had not and 11% were not sure. Despite broad support, only 30% of the public can correctly identify the meaning of “Net Zero”.
  • More than 30% of the public are not familiar with alternatives to conventional gas heating, and 30% say they “don’t know enough” to offer a view. None of the alternative technologies are familiar to more than 20% of the public: only 10% of voters have heard of hydrogen boilers; 19% have heard of heat pumps.
  • Although two in five respondents in our poll (40%) supported mandatory switchovers, 37% were opposed and 23% said they did know. We are concerned this support for a mandatory switchover rests on fragile foundations that must be significantly reinforced before such a switchover begins.

The report says:

“Leadership efforts need to step up in the next year, if the extensive changes that the Government want to make are to be delivered in a timely manner. “

“Any policy requiring significant change and cost in voters’ homes in the name of Net Zero is at risk of encountering significant resistance if Net Zero is not better understood. “

Some “green” schemes have been funded by applying additional levies to household energy bills, with the money earmarked for supporting low-income consumers.

The SMF said that such an approach should not be adopted to help fund the decarbonisation of home heat, since it risks fuelling public cynicism about Net Zero policies.

Instead, ministers should fund support for poorer households from public money and raise the money from taxation if necessary. Such an approach would have public support, the SMF found: 60% want some sort of taxpayer support for poorer households making the transition from gas.

Decarbonising the home will take a collaborative and sustained effort from across industry, regulators and the public with shared responsibility to achieve Net Zero by 2050. However, ultimately, the legal obligation of reducing emissions falls on the government to deliver, therefore urgent measures must be taken to kickstart the market of home heat.

SMF Researcher Amy Norman said:

“Voters are sympathetic to the broad cause of Net Zero but they need much more information and leadership, especially when it comes to taking the carbon out of home heating.

“Replacing millions of gas boilers with low-carbon alternatives is a huge and vital task, but the public are poorly prepared for the costs and disruption it could bring.

“The mandatory switchover of gas heating may well be necessary to hit Net Zero on time, but it should not start until public awareness has increased and plans are in place to support low-income households with the costs of the transition.

“Launching policies to decarbonise home heat without preparing voters for the transition risks a backlash that could make it a lot harder for Britain to achieve Net Zero.”

Keith Anderson, CEO of ScottishPower, said:

“Producing more green energy that can support the transition to cleaner transport and cleaner home heating is at the heart of what is needed to achieve net zero and we can’t do it quickly enough. However, we have to ensure the pace of change meets the challenges we face head-on – while leaving no one behind – so we genuinely deliver a just transition.

“The work to deliver the homes of the future must start now with a smarter approach around energy efficiency, a clear pathway for the roll-out of low-carbon heating systems and a new approach to accelerate the roll-out of smart meters. That means all of us not just thinking differently about how we use energy, but making a conscious decision to act differently too.

“This offers huge opportunities for both the environment and the economy to make the much-talked about green recovery a reality. We need government, industry and society to work together to ensure the right policies and framework are in place and I’m sure the SMF report will spark constructive debate to make that happen.”


The SMF report, “Boiler alert: Addressing the challenges and trade-offs from the decarbonisation of home heat” will published at www.smf.co.uk/publications/boiler-alert  at 7am on Monday 2 November.

The think-tank’s Towards Net Zero project is sponsored by ScottishPower. The SMF declares all its financial support and retains full editorial independence over all its outputs.

The report draws on a private roundtable with politicians from Government and Opposition parties, officials and experts. All conclusions and recommendations are those of the SMF alone. For details of the polling commissioned for this report, see Note 1.

Contact

  • For media enquiries, please contact SMF’s Impact Officer Linus Pardoe – linus@smf.co.uk – 07402 576995
  • Alternatively, please contact SMF Director James Kirkup – james@smf.co.uk

Notes

  1. Survey commissioned from Opinium as part of this study, using a nationally representative sample of 2,004 UK adults.
  2. The Houses of Parliament burn more than £600,000 of natural gas every year to power four industrial boilers. The Palace of Westminster restoration project has not made a firm commitment to end the use of natural gas in future, saying only that “opportunities to install further renewable energies will be considered as part of the electrical infrastructure programme and major refurbishments.” Source: https://www.parliament.uk/about/sustainability/environmental-faqs/
  3. See https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/uk-housing-fit-for-the-future/
  4. See https://es.catapult.org.uk/news/low-carbon-heating-biggest-household-challenge-for-net-zero/

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