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By Earl Russell
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The UK’s decarbonisation goals and the need for popular consent in policy making

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OFTEC

4 min read Partner content

Amendments to the Government’s Energy Bill, proposed by former Environment Secretary George Eustice, could help make Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) a more affordable option for decarbonising the UK's rural housing stock.

Why is the UK struggling to make progress with some elements of its decarbonisation plans? Many reasons have been put forward and the situation is undeniably complicated. Progress has been generally positive for bigger infrastructure projects, such as generating more low carbon energy.  Where consumer action is required, it has often been a different story.

Take low carbon heating, for example, where heat pump sales are still well below expectations. Government subsidies for heat pumps have been available for some time, but sales in the UK remain muted – and lower than much of the rest of Europe. One obvious solution is to regulate so that the installation of heat pumps becomes mandatory in most cases, and the Government has proposed to do exactly this for off-gas grid homes and businesses, a move that, by 2026, will affect around four million rural dwellers.

But while mandating heat pump installations may force progress, removing consumer choice will likely prove extremely unpopular with the electorate. Heat pumps are more expensive than traditional heating systems, and homes often require other changes that can add to the cost and disruption. This latter issue partly explains why progress deploying heat pumps is so much slower in the UK – our homes are older and less energy efficient, which makes them less suited to heat pumps. In the current economic climate, consumers are understandably sensitive to green measures that add to their living costs and policies that appear to target some groups unfairly, are also likely to play extremely badly.

Debate has reached fever pitch following July’s by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. The seat was within Labour’s grasp, but voter concern over the impending expansion of the Mayor of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) – designed to discourage use of the worst-polluting vehicles, resulted in a narrow win for the Conservatives.

This tells us something that should be blindingly obvious, but which seems to have been forgotten by some – decarbonisation can only be achieved by consent. Policies like ULEZ, or those designed to decarbonise heating are important. But make them too expensive or too difficult, fail to consult adequately or single out only some people but not others, and the chances are that householders simply won’t agree to it or, it’s now clear, vote for it.

This reality check should naturally lead to a rethink of how to decarbonise the emissions from heating off-gas grid buildings. If policy makers hadn’t realised before that forcing people to install heat pumps might not be a vote-winner, they certainly should be in no doubt about it now. With a General Election only a year or so away, rural votes will be of crucial importance to all the political parties, but making progress with decarbonisation also remains a critical challenge.

It’s only by delivering fair and affordable low carbon heating options that the government will succeed. Fortunately, less expensive solutions are potentially available.

The liquid fuel heating industry has a fully tested low carbon replacement for heating oil called Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO), that is ready and waiting. It costs around £500 to convert existing oil heating systems, compared to the significant costs of up to £30,000 to install a heat pump in off grid homes, and this delivers a carbon reduction of around 88% compared to fossil fuel heating oils.  It is exactly the kind of friction free solution that consumers are demanding. The only catch is that HVO is currently more expensive than heating oil. However, this is easily solved by replicating for heating the incentive scheme already in place when HVO is used in transport. Amendments to the Government’s Energy Bill have been proposed by former Environment Secretary George Eustice to achieve this, and you can find out more on the Future Ready Fuel website.

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