Why is the UK struggling to make progress with the heating side of its decarbonisation plans? Many reasons have been put forward and the situation is undeniably complicated. Progress has been generally positive for bigger infrastructure projects, such as generating more low carbon energy. However, where consumer action is required, it has often been a different story.

Reducing carbon emissions from home heating is one of the government’s key ambitions. For years heat pumps have been promoted as the primary solution, but sales are still well below expectations.

Government subsidies for heat pumps have been available for some time, but the uptake of the technology remains slow – and lower than much of the rest of Europe. One obvious solution put forward is to regulate so that the installation of heat pumps, in most cases, becomes mandatory. 

In its Heat and Buildings Strategy, the government has proposed to do exactly that. It proposed ending the installation of replacement fossil fuel boilers from 2026 in homes and small businesses. The same applies to larger businesses from 2024. This move would affect around four million rural dwellers.

While mandating heat pump installations may force progress, if consumers can’t afford or are unwilling to pay for the transition then progress will stall. Removing consumer choice will also likely prove extremely unpopular with the electorate, a risk for any political party looking to make gains in rural constituencies at the next election.

The problem is that heat pumps are significantly more expensive than traditional heating systems, and homes often require extra modifications that can add to the cost and disruption of their installation. 

This latter issue partly explains why progress deploying heat pumps is so much slower in the UK than it is in Europe – our homes are older and less energy efficient, which makes them less suited to heat pumps. This is particularly true for off-grid dwellings, which begs the question as to why the government wants to start with the hardest homes first.

The government’s online calculator shows that the cost of converting some of these properties to a heat pump will be over £20,000. The reason being they will often require new radiators, new piping, the introduction of a hot water tank, and other measures for the technology to work effectively. Rural areas also typically have higher levels of fuel poverty and less disposable income.

Combine this with the cost of living crisis the country is currently experiencing and you can see the problem. While surveys show consumers want to play their part in cutting emissions, people are understandably very sensitive to green measures that add to their living costs. 

Policies that appear to target some groups of people unfairly, such as in the case of off-grid homes being expected to transition to heat pumps nine years earlier than those on mains gas, are also likely to play extremely badly with those groups.

This debate has reached fever pitch following July’s by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. According to the polls, this long-held Tory seat was within Labour’s grasp, but many commentators have argued that voter concern over the impending expansion of the Mayor of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – designed to discourage the use of the worst-polluting vehicles – resulted in the Conservatives’ narrow win.

If true, this tells us something that should be blindingly obvious, but which seems to have been forgotten by some – decarbonisation can only be achieved by consent. Policies like ULEZ, or those designed to decarbonise heating, are important. But make them too expensive or too difficult, fail to consult adequately, or single out only some sections of society, and the chances are that people simply won’t agree to it or vote for it.

Former Environment Secretary George Eustice MP, who represents an off-grid constituency in Cornwall, recently wrote a piece that made the front page of the Daily Telegraph. In it he compared the government’s decarbonisation plans for off-grid homes to ULEZ. This intervention reflected the frustration of many consumers and rural MPs worried about holding their seats at the next election.

As pressure grows, with the upcoming general election next year, and the need to keep rural voters on side, the government seems paralysed to act. This may create a momentary pause, but the direction of travel towards low carbon heating is inevitable and it is vital that the UK plays its part in tackling emissions. 

However, right now, the off-grid sector and consumers have a chance to set the road that we travel along to get there. That is why we can’t sit back; we must seize this opportunity.

Helpfully, the liquid fuel heating industry has a fully tested, low carbon replacement for heating oil called Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO). It costs around £500 to convert existing oil heating systems, and it delivers a carbon reduction of around 88% compared to fossil fuel heating oils. It is exactly the kind of friction-free solution that consumers are demanding.

The only catch is that HVO is currently more expensive than heating oil. However, this can be solved by extending the incentive scheme already in place for HVO used in transport to HVO used for heating. 

At the time of writing, amendments to the government’s Energy Bill have been proposed by former Environment Secretary George Eustice to achieve this and we urge more MPs to back him.