“In the last two years emissions from heating buildings have actually increased”

Cosy, but also bad for you. Image: Getty.

The heating in our homes is not being turned off this winter, despite National Grid issuing warnings about gas supply levels. Yet it is our thirst for gas that made this nightmare scenario a more real possibility in the first place.

In this instance, there is reason to believe that this was an exceptional event. The so-called Beast from the East has pushed up gas demand and has also caused problems in gas supply lines from Norway and the Netherlands. Compounding this has been the closure of gas storage facilities that have further restricted supply.

But, even if such weather events are exceptional, this situation was also entirely avoidable – If only successive governments had not failed to promote the decarbonisation of our heating system.

While there are many positive stories of the growing importance of renewables, such as offshore wind, this progress almost entirely relates to our electricity, not our heating. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that 75 per cent of declining emissions from 2012 to 2016 have come from using less coal for power generation. But in the last two years emissions from heating buildings have actually increased.

This lack of focus on heating is largely because previous governments have argued that security of supply and affordability are more important than decarbonisation, and have instead opted to stick with gas for heating. The current projections from National Grid suggest that this was misguided.

Looking first at security of supply, if anything, the opposite is true. In 2016, 77 per cent of households in the UK relied on natural gas for heating the home. Given the UK imported just under 60 per cent of its natural gas supply in that year, if extreme weather events caused more severe problems than they have this week, the impact would be dramatic.

By contrast, both renewable heating methods and energy efficiency upgrades are more likely to increase security of supply because they are largely locally sourced and do not rely on a wider network of imports.

In particular, energy efficiency improvements like loft and wall insulation are very good at increasing security of supply, because they reduce the overall energy demand of a household and often do not require a specific heating system. Indeed, from 2004-2015 energy efficiency improvements helped to decrease gas demand by 37 per cent.

Yet policy in this area has been historically, and presently, weak because of the second challenge: affordability. The picture is characterised by a constant lack of ambition and funding which inherently stymies the opportunity for any meaningful cost reductions.

Indeed, the National Audit Office recently suggested that the Renewable Heat Incentive, the main scheme providing subsidies for renewable heating technologies, has been over-optimistic about take-up and poorly delivered. Upcoming research from IPPR and Citizens Advice will further demonstrate that the main scheme offering energy efficiency upgrades to households in England and Wales, the Energy Company Obligation, is similarly not fit for purpose.

The idea that any solution other than gas is unaffordable is particularly strange when juxtaposed with the dramatic cost reductions from offshore wind in the power sector – which have actually led to some projects being cheaper than gas used for power.

These reductions were only achievable because the project had sufficient funding in the first place. So it is bewildering that this does not currently serve as a template for what can be achieved in the heating sector.

In fairness, there is some recognition in the current government’s Clean Growth Strategy of the importance of scaling up low carbon heating and energy efficiency deployment, and there are plans for consultations in these areas. But the very immediate concerns with our current system of gas heating must add to urgency with which these are conducted.

In short, decarbonising our heat is no longer just about reducing emissions: it is about protecting the right to keep our homes warm.

Joshua Emden is a research fellow in the environment, housing and infrastructure team at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.