Household gas boilers in the UK release over double the carbon dioxide of all gas-fired power stations in the country, a new study has revealed.
Analysis of data from energy regulator Ofgem shows that domestic gas boilers also emit over eight and a half times as much harmful nitrogen oxide than the UK’s entire gas power fleet, increasing the risk of respiratory illnesses.
The news comes ahead of the government’s anticipated Heat and Buildings Strategy on how the UK will decarbonise housing, and in the midst of ongoing protests by campaign group Insulate Britain, who are calling for the government to insulate all homes by 2030.
Authors of the research, conducted by climate charity Possible and community energy social enterprise Scene, are calling on the government to accelerate the transition to renewable heating sources such as heat pumps in a way that does not penalise low-income households or increase fuel poverty.
Neil Jones, a campaigner at Possible, said the research showed the government needed to work harder to implement alternative energy sources in the UK’s ageing housing stock, the oldest in Europe.
“Amidst a frightening gas price crisis, and a decade of opportunity wasted by the government to insulate our homes, supporting households to begin switching to clean heat pumps has come suddenly into focus,” Jones said.
“It’s high time the government finally gave us all the tools we need to modernise our homes, and ensure a safer, cleaner future.”
The analysis found the UK’s 26 million gas boilers each release 3.54 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, amounting to over 92 millions tonnes annually. This is over double the 41 million tonnes of emissions created by the UK’s 48 gas-fired power plants.
The research comes amid mounting pressure on the government to decarbonise UK homes, which are responsible for 14 percent of the country’s emissions, after a series of false starts.
In 2019, the government announced that all gas boilers would be banned in new homes from 2025 and replaced by low-carbon alternatives. It also announcing in its energy white paper last year that boilers would be phased out from existing homes in the “mid 2030s”, with the exact date likely to be published in the Heat and Buildings Strategy.
A Green Homes Grant initiative launched by the government last year to provide support for low-carbon heating and energy efficiency measures was widely deemed a failure after it emerged that just 5 percent of the scheme’s funding had been used and fewer than 6,000 jobs were created.
Rates of home insulation installations collapsed by 95 percent between 2012 and 2019, according to the charity National Energy Action, while the UK ranks low among European countries for heat pump installations.
Professor Martin Freer, director of the Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI) and head of physics and astronomy at the University of Birmingham, said the findings reinforced the need to “move rapidly” to deliver low carbon heating solutions.
“This transition is not straightforward and needs a nationally coordinated programme as set out by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in its call for a National Delivery Body,” Freer said, referring to the body’s proposals for an independent body to deliver a national heat decarbonisation programme.
“It is essential that any transition away from gas boilers is done in a way that it does not expose more people to fuel poverty and recognises the challenges of delivering heat pump solutions to older, less energy efficient homes.”
Good for Health
Climate campaigners are concerned that valid fears over the cost of switching away gas boilers have been overplayed by those with a stake in delaying the UK’s move to net zero emissions.
One of the UK’s biggest trade unions, GMB, was recently accused of being “deeply misleading” after suggesting government climate plans involved “ripping out” gas boilers from people’s homes – a statement which drew criticism from multiple quarters, including the union’s own members, the renewables industry and government.
Dr Richard Lowes, a senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), a thinktank working to support the low-carbon energy transition, said a move to renewable heating systems would be good for human as well as planetary health.
“Heating, much of which comes from fossil gas, causes over a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions,” he told DeSmog. “Thankfully, technologies which can reduce emissions from heating such as heat pumps and energy efficiency will also reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.
“A switch from gas to electric and induction cooking can also remove many of the nasty emissions from inside your house too, where levels of pollutants can be even higher than outside, primarily because of your gas hob.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Over the next 15 years, we will incentivise households to switch to lower carbon, more efficient heating systems as people come to replace their fossil fuel boilers.
“Our Heat and Buildings Strategy will set out our framework to decarbonise how we heat UK homes and places of work, setting us on the pathway to net zero. Our entire approach will be to keep energy bills low and ensure this gradual transition away from gas boilers is fair and affordable for consumers and the taxpayer.”