Britain’s leaky homes are unprepared for climate change

When one of the UK’s most senior climate officials finds it difficult to buy a heat pump, the prospect for anyone else trying to cut their household emissions looks bleak.

John Gummer, also known as Lord Deben, head of the UK government’s climate advisory group, last month lamented the difficulty of buying one of the low carbon alternatives to gas boilers that keep homes warm in winter but act as an air conditioner in hot weather.

“You try buying a heat pump! I’m chairman of the Climate Change Committee, it really is very hard indeed,” he told the House of Common’s Environmental Audit Committee. “We’ve got to find a way of doing it, it’s got to be done.”

Finding ways to cut fast-rising gas and electricity bills has become one of the country’s biggest political and economic priorities. Britain has some of the oldest housing stock in Europe — it is leaky and inefficient, making buildings hot in the summer and cold in winter.

Gummer explained to MPs that the installation of heat pumps, together with the proper insulation of properties, would go a long way to saving energy while reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions — around a fifth of which come from buildings.

The country was given a stark reminder of the impact of a warming climate by last month’s record temperatures, which exceeded 40C in some areas for the first time on record.

There is also growing concern that rising energy prices combined with a prolonged cold spell this winter could leave millions of people in freezing homes because they are unable to afford to turn the heating on.

Properly insulating the UK’s 29mn homes would push down the nationwide demand for energy and cut the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Well-insulated properties would also be better prepared for a future of more frequent and intense heatwaves.

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Given the spiralling cost of living crisis, “it would be a crazy government that didn’t address [retrofit and energy efficiency],” said Jo Wheeler, a senior manager at the charity UK Green Building Council. But retrofitting properties at scale is “not a quick fix,” she added. The work takes time to complete, and the industry “needs to be built up over time”.

This month the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), a coalition of MPs from the ruling party, sought to remind Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak — the two contenders to become the UK’s next prime minister — that they must grasp the issue, including by providing more money to help insulate homes. Neither has said much about energy efficiency during their campaigns.

CEN laid out a three-point plan, including the government spending an extra £1bn annually to insulate 500,000 “fuel-poor households this winter”, rising to 1mn properties a year from next April.

“I urge the next prime minister to consider these practical, industry-led proposals,” said Philip Dunne, one of CEN’s members.

Although the government of outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson published its “heat and buildings” strategy for making properties more energy efficient and less emissions-intensive last year, it was criticised as insufficient and lacking in detail.

In an open letter this month, Gillian Charlesworth, chief executive of the Building Research Establishment, echoed the call by CEN and said the government’s plans “do not go far enough.”

“The crisis in global energy prices can be quickly and effectively alleviated by improving the energy efficiency of our homes and buildings,” she wrote, and called for a “fully funded national retrofit strategy.”

The government said it was investing around £6.6bn to support home energy efficiency this parliament, most of which targeted low income and vulnerable households. “Our heat and buildings strategy sets out the action we’re taking to reduce buildings’ emissions and enable industry to invest in delivering the transition to low-carbon heating,” it added in a statement.

About a third of all the heat in an uninsulated house escapes through walls, while around a quarter escapes through the roof, according to non-profit group the Energy Saving Trust.

Heating and hot water use around three-quarters of the total energy used in homes, which is “much more than necessary,” according to LETI, a network of built environment professionals, which added: “Our homes simply leak energy.”

The cost of installing a heat pump can be prohibitive at £10,000 or more, and the Energy Saving Trust estimates insulating walls and lofts and fitting double-glazing in a typical three-bedroom, semi-detached house would cost close to £9,000.

While homeowners are likely to recoup the money over time through lower bills many are put off by the upfront costs. Although the government last year announced a £5,000-per-household grant for the installation of a heat pump, there is little other financial support available for retrofit.

The Climate Change Committee has estimated that decarbonising all UK buildings would require around £12bn in annual investment in the years to 2050, but it would result in an annual £5bn saving in fuel costs.

But high upfront costs are not the only hurdle for sustainability-minded homeowners; there is also a chronic shortage of workers qualified to retrofit properties and install heat pumps.

Years of stop-start government policy — such as the “green homes grant” scheme that was abruptly scrapped last year — has hit investment, said Chaitanya Kumar, head of environment and green transition at the New Economics Foundation.

The number of certified heat pump installers was “minimal . . . there isn’t enough of a skilled workforce to really scale up,” he said, adding that businesses needed long-term certainty to invest.

Those looking to get started on energy-saving home improvements are often advised to arrange a whole house assessment by an accredited professional who can draw up a plan for the property. But the availability of people that can provide that service “is pretty patchy,” said Wheeler.

While some European governments have been more willing to talk openly about the need to conserve energy, ministers in the UK have been reluctant.

Although CEN stressed the importance of promoting simple changes, such as requiring energy companies to offer advice about how to run a boiler more efficiently, in his comments to MPs Gummer said there was an “absolute refusal” by ministers to “face the question of behaviour change.”

Costs and savings for a semi-detached three-bed home
Measure Estimated cost Estimated annual bill saving
Draught-proofing £220 £95
Cavity wall insulation £1,100 £285
Loft insulation £425 £25
Double glazing (A++ rated) £7,500 £175
If all these improvements were carried out, they could pay for themselves in less than sixteen years. Savings are for a gas-heated home in Great Britain using a gas price of 7.4p/kWh and electricity price of 28.3p/kWh (April 2022 price cap). Savings will probably be higher when adjusted to the October 2022 price cap level. Source: Energy Saving Trust.

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