BLOG INSTALMENT (B) in a three-part ‘Long Read’ looking at Government policy as we prepare for COP26 in Glasgow at the end of the year

2. Buildings and heat

If renewables is the UK’s strongest low-carbon suit, energy efficiency in the built environment is by far the weakest.

It’s absolutely critical that the UK puts efficiency at the heart of its Net Zero ambition: the lower the total amount of energy required, the easier it becomes to meet that demand with renewables and other sustainable technologies. And the fact that most environmental organisations, most climate campaigners, most anti-poverty campaigners and most trade unionists continue to treat energy efficiency (and fuel poverty in particular) as a secondary concern tells me they haven’t begun to understand the true nature of our Net Zero challenge.

This was powerfully reinforced by a new report from the International Energy Agency in December last year, looking for opportunities for investment in energy efficiency as part of governments’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It argues that improving energy efficiency creates far more jobs than generating energy, demonstrating that efficiency-related stimulus packages that have already been announced will create 1.8 million jobs globally over the next two years, with many more to come if governments spend their money wisely. ‘As energy efficiency investments can also be mobilised quickly, they are one of the most attractive investments in the energy sector for governments seeking to protect existing jobs or generate new jobs during the recession.’

It’s in the built environment where the biggest efficiency gains are to be made – not just in terms of new-build but existing buildings. Household emissions from heating and hot water (roughly 20% of the UK’s emissions) must reduce by a massive 95% if the UK is to achieve its Net Zero target by 2050. According to the Committee on Climate Change, that will require up to 20,000 homes and other buildings to be retrofitted every week. For the next 30 years. The Committee has also pointed out that the number of homes being insulated today has dropped by over 90% since 2012, owing mostly to the Government’s axing of Labour’s tried and tested retrofit initiatives.

The Government’s response to this is nothing short of pathetic. Despite endless calls from business and NGOs to put a major homes retrofit programme at the heart of its ‘Build Back Better’ strategy, all we have at the moment is the patently inadequate Green Homes Scheme promising grants to individual homeowners, with £2bn committed through to the end of March 2022. The Environmental Audit Committee shredded the design and implementation of the Green Homes Scheme in a report at the end of last year. Confusion still reigns as to how many new jobs will be created by the Green Homes Scheme. The initial pledge was 100,000 in July last year; in September, that went up to 140,000, then back down again to 80,000 in November, and then down to 50,000 in Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan. Frankly, they haven’t got a clue.

Things may improve from herein on. After endless delays, the Government published its Future Homes Standard in January, with plans to phase out gas heating systems in new homes by 2025, as well as new energy efficiency standards for both new and existing homes. All new homes will need to produce 31% lower greenhouse gas emissions (under a set of interim changes to Building Regulations), with an expectation that new homes should produce 75%-80% lower emissions by 2025. Why that’s not zero emissions (as was the target under the old Code for Sustainable Homes, axed by the Conservative Government in 2015) is anybody’s guess. Happily, local authorities will be allowed to set their own higher energy efficiency standards, which could prove crucial as metropolitan areas press ahead with their own, more ambitious climate strategies.

Otherwise, it’s just the usual ‘targetry without delivery’: 600,000 heat pumps to be installed ever year by 2028; 2.2 million homes in the social housing sector to be improved, with a promise in the 2019 Election Manifesto of £6.3bn to make this happen; a new Low-Carbon Heat Support Scheme from April 2022, etc etc. This on/off approach, with a drib here and a drab there, shows this Government’s contempt for addressing fuel poverty strategically – as they’re now doing so effectively in Scotland through the ‘Warmer Homes Scotland’ initiative.

What’s needed is a multi-year programme, taking us through to 2030, 2040 and then 2050, focused both on the ‘willing and able to pay’ (as the Green Homes Scheme does) and on the social housing sector, as originally called for by the Green New Deal group – and now supported by the Lib Dems and by Labour.

This will indeed cost billions of pounds. As a general rule of thumb, ‘buying efficiency’ costs a lot less than ‘buying new electrons’, wherever they come from. And a retrofit programme of this kind will cost so much less than the utterly nonsensical ideas about a new hydrogen-based distribution system, apparently entailing the installation of millions of new (very expensive) hydrogen-ready boilers, with the added ‘bonus’ of that hydrogen being produced from nuclear-generated electricity.

3. Hydrogen

Like many environmentalists, I’m cautiously enthusiastic about green hydrogen, and warmly welcomed the Government’s commitment in last year’s Energy White Paper to support the UK’s rapid expansion in hydrogen production capacity using electrolysis, with a commitment to generate 5GW of green hydrogen by 2030.

To keep this in perspective, let’s just remind ourselves that hydrogen as we know it today is the very opposite of a green fuel – despite the Government’s efforts to badge it as a ‘clean energy technology’ in the 2020 Energy White Paper. 99% of the 115 million tonnes used globally (primarily in refining and chemicals) is ‘grey hydrogen’, made from natural gas, emitting around 830 million tonnes of CO2 – 2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions! Beyond that, there’s a tiny amount of so-called ‘blue hydrogen’ – essentially grey hydrogen but with those CO2 emissions captured and stored – and an even tinier amount of green hydrogen from electrolysis, both of which are much more expensive than the climate-wrecking grey hydrogen.

The gulf between that current reality (rarely mentioned by hydrogen enthusiasts) and the prospect of readily available, affordable green hydrogen is absolutely vast. We need to bear that in mind even as we welcome efforts to bridge that gulf, including the newly launched, UN-backed Green Hydrogen Catapult (involving a number of big companies to halve production costs whilst massively increasing global production up to 25GW by 2026, with investment of more than $100bn), and the UK’s ‘Hydrogen Strategy Now’ consortium set up in November last year, with talk of pumping £3bn into a UK-wide hydrogen economy, working alongside a major Green Hydrogen for Scotland consortium.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about green hydrogen through 2021. January saw three new announcements: the first from Northern Gas Networks (with a plan to convert 650 households and businesses in a village near Gateshead to use gas blended with 20% ‘zero carbon hydrogen’); second, a joint commitment from the five big gas grid companies to blend 20% hydrogen into local gas grids by 2023, with a new Hydrogen Network Plan; third, a much bigger scheme in the North West involving Progressive Energy and an oil refining firm called Essar to invest £750m to produce ‘low-carbon hydrogen’, sequestering the resulting CO2 in sub-surface reservoirs below Liverpool Bay – theoretically, this could provide up to 80% of the Government’s 5GW target for 2030.

But blue hydrogen is very different from green hydrogen. The truth of it is that one needs a lot of electricity to produce not a lot of hydrogen – which makes pipedreams about substituting hydrogen for conventional gas in the UK’s gas grid, or of producing millions of tonnes of blue hydrogen, look almost entirely insane.

Decarbonising shipping and steel production should be the priorities for green hydrogen. In the meantime, hydrogen enthusiasts should be ruthlessly focused on decarbonising existing hydrogen production – and eliminating those 830 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.