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Natural gas heating viability questioned for 2050 'net zero' aims

Any decision by government to totally curb carbon emissions by 2050 will require significant public engagement on cost and technical challenges facing homeowners, the CCC has warned

Natural gas heating will not be viable in any form if the UK government commits to become a ‘net zero’ carbon economy by 2050, a key figure within the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said.

David Joffe, economy wide analysis lead with the committee, said that switching the existing grid to the currently more expensive option of hydrogen was the best option to ensure gas heating has a role in a zero-carbon economy.

Mr Joffe said that despite the challenge posed by the present high cost levels associated with hydrogen production, they would fall if generation of the gas could be sufficiently scaled.  This would need to be backed by the potential development of new heating technologies capable of effectively using some form of hydrogen that is currently being explored by several major manufacturers.

The claims were raised during an Energy Summit event hosted by the Spectator magazine in London this week that looked at how the UK can best realise its current aims to curb emissions by 80 per cent from a 1990 baseline by 2050.

However, building on from recent recommendations from the CCC that government must now go further and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the same timeframe, pressure is mounting from the CCC for a thorough overhaul of priorities concerning greener buildings.

The CCC plays an influential role in trying to influence government environmental policy such as its Clean Growth Strategy.

Mr Joffe said that the 80 per cent carbon reduction target that is currently government policy did allow for some remaining emissions from sectors such as heating or transportation to exist by 2050. However, Mr Joffe questioned whether this room for some emissions to remain may have hampered stronger industry and policy action.

He said, “There are various different ways you can cut it and that is part of the problem with the 80 per cent target.”

Mr Joffe added, “Net zero means going as far as we can with everything, and still we may have some remaining emissions.”

The CCC confirmed during the event that the government had not made any formal stance on its net zero recommendations that were published in May.

Public awareness

Journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil, who was chairing the summit, noted that the level of change required to realise the UK’s transformation into a net zero economy through decarbonisation would bring the issue directly into UK homes. This he said, raised questions about current engagement with the public and whether there was sufficient understanding of the impacts decarbonisation will have on their way of living.

Mr Joffe said that the limited levels of public engagement by government on the technical and cost changes required to heat homes to a net zero carbon standard was a major challenge for both the private and public sector.

He said, “The public seem to be very engaged in terms of needing action on climate change in terms of setting ambitious targets. But when it comes to actions required to meet this, I think the public are way behind where they need to be.”

“For example, moving away from natural gas in the home, whether that’s heat pumps or hydrogen, most people don’t know even they will need to move away from natural gas, never mind what the solutions are. Whether it is hydrogen or heat pumps, it will be more expensive then what we need to do today, as natural gas is cheap.”

Mr Joffe said this highlighted some of the big decisions that government had to make in the 2020s about the direction of low carbon heat, which would be hugely difficult without greater public engagement.

He said that making a wrong decision risked the potential for backlash and costs that might derail public take-up.

Mr Joffe added, “You need to engage with people before that and we have a very limited window to do that, as the decisions need to be made in the next five years or so.”

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