Are things finally hotting up for heat pumps?
If you work in anything to do with climate action in the UK, it probably comes as a regular shock to you to be reminded how far out of whack public understanding of emissions is. Even at focus groups we’ve run over the last few weeks, members of the public with middle-ground attitudes to the climate crisis dismissed ideas for hard-hitting emissions reductions campaigns with comments like, ‘Surely there’s bigger things you could be focusing on — like recycling?’
But, just as they have in past ‘energy shocks’ going back to the 1970s, a series of world events is now coming together to get us talking about how we can urgently change and adapt. When it comes to cutting how much gas we burn to heat our homes, there are twin solutions (beyond simply using less): insulating the UK’s housing to keep heat in, and replacing gas boilers with low-carbon options like heat pumps to avoid burning fossil fuels in the first place. While heat pumps are particularly fascinating because they’re a very new and somewhat ‘radical’ concept for the public, they rely on well-insulated homes to work properly — hence the ‘Fabric First’ approach, that tackles waste. We loved Campaign Strategy’s comments on moving from a supply/demand framing to a frame of waste/no waste: the solution to this energy crisis isn’t increasing the UK’s gas supply, because burning more gas to heat leaky homes is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it.
Given that heating makes up around a third of household emissions, it’s striking that neither the public nor policymakers have been particularly into the issue so far. The Green Deal of 2012–15, which promised government grants to pay for home improvements, is remembered as a bit of a flop, partly because it relied too heavily on financial incentives and failed to take other influences on homeowners’ decisions into account. And it’s surprising that, since then, the task of getting people talking about the benefits of a national home insulation programme should have been left to the pressure group Insulate Britain, who started their controversial direct action campaign back in September. Now, however, in an accelerating cost of living crisis and drive to get off imported gas, their single demand looks extremely prescient.
It gets even more surprising when you consider that home insulation should be a no-brainer for public support, across the political spectrum. A national scheme would provide tens of thousands of jobs, lower bills, improve energy security, and help tackle fuel poverty. And despite the current backlash against the perceived expense of decarbonisation plans, recent modelling from the CCC shows that meeting the Sixth Carbon Budget, including widespread uptake of low-carbon heat solutions, would deliver a saving of 0.5% of GDP. So, let’s say the government were to launch a national programme to wean us off gas — what might they want to do differently this time, to make upgrades easy and appealing for homeowners?
Before we even get into the behavioural issues, the spread of home ownership across the country means that a huge swathe of the population — around 17 million social and private renters — are locked out of the issue in the first place. Current regulations only require an EPC rating of E for rental properties — so social housing providers, corporate and private landlords, and owner-occupiers will need to be targeted, pressured, and funded to do much more.
Assuming that you’re one of the ~65% of owner-occupied households, it’s still a huge ask from a behavioural perspective. Getting your home insulated or installing a heat pump will be an inherently irregular, infrequent behaviour, which you probably won’t do more than once or twice in your whole life. That said, opportunities abound around what we call ‘moments of change’ — periods of transition and disruption where people are particularly receptive to doing things differently — and it’s easy to think of ways that these kind of moments around moving house or doing building work could be leveraged to encourage people to think about the options. Plus, ‘energy shocks’, like the one we’re living through right now, should also be seen as shared moments of change which governments, councils and companies can build on to accelerate uptake.
But even if you’re open to the idea in theory, it’s not the easiest to start engaging with. Insights from our recent research with one local authority suggest that the options remain shrouded in mystery, myths and confusion. Navigating multiple sources of information from energy providers and potential installers is time, energy and cognitive effort many people don’t feel they have day to day. While BEIS does in theory have contractors registered as Green Homes Grant installers, it’s fair to say this is not well publicised or widely known, and so there are major awareness and trust gaps to be bridged here.
We also can’t underestimate simply how much hassle it is for householders to make significant changes to their homes. It could so easily be one of those things you always mean to do, but never quite get round to. Even if we assume that a few years’ time will be enough to improve general awareness and establish some kind of trusted system or scheme, disruption at home will be an unavoidable barrier. How appealing is that if you have tenants, young children, family members with health problems, or even pets under your roof? As well as leveraging moments of change, incentives, time-limited schemes or forms of pressure may need to be in place to make it all feel like an urgent priority that gives something back. Our research suggests that a personal benefit is really important for motivating pro-environmental behaviours — and, as the Green Deal showed, a promise of future reimbursement is not enough of a benefit to overcome the barriers. Choosing to do something about the energy efficiency of your home is a multi-layered, many-step process, with a number of difficult ‘sub behaviours’ to work through; available to a limited number of people and differing significantly for different types of properties.
We very much hope to see a well-funded, well-organised, and well-publicised scheme to get the UK off gas in the very near future — and that this time, it will be better informed about human behaviour.