Decarbonising heating – flying by the heat of our pants

26th April 2021 | Commercial Energy

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference – COP26 – is on the horizon, due to kick off in Glasgow on 1 November. It seems that, despite the socio-economic worries brought on by a global pandemic, heightened societal attention to climate change is here to stay. Now, more than ever, climate change is at the forefront of public discourse and, in November, the UK will be the focal point. In this blog, Dr Laurence Stamford from The University of Manchester outlines the need for radical change in our heating system and the most environmentally sound route to its decarbonisation.

Compared to other sectors, there is very little progress in decarbonising heat, despite it being one of the biggest contributors to climate change. The UK has plans for low-carbon heating in new homes, but nothing substantive for existing buildings. Using a life cycle perspective, air source heat pumps appear to be the lowest-impact option but must be combined with efficiency improvements. Hydrogen from various sources can also play a role.

Policies supporting retrofitting our buildings are needed urgently: In some areas the UK has made impressive progress on climate change, most notably the electricity sector, where the past 15 years have seen a climate-friendly combination of falling demand (by 18%) and plummeting greenhouse gas intensity (by almost 50%). However, while electrical power is often the centre of attention, we must remember that – as is the case for most countries – electricity accounts for less than a fifth of the UK’s final energy use: 17% to be exact. So, what about the remaining 83%? The biggest contributors are heating and transport, and both are harder to tackle than electricity due their stubborn reliance on combustion of solid, liquid or gaseous fuels.

Change at a glacial pace: This is a global challenge; heating accounted for half of the world’s energy consumption in 2018, and 90% of that was provided by fossil fuels. Altogether, heat is responsible for 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately – and unlike the transformation of the electricity sector – this picture doesn’t seem to be changing: globally, fossil fuel-based technology and conventional resistive electric heaters accounted for almost 80% of heating equipment sales in 2019. Across Europe, 57% of the heating demand of buildings is met by natural gas with a further 23% provided by oil or coal.

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