Subscribing to our award-winning Hub enables readers to receive regular emails with the top articles most likely to interest them

Joe Bradbury asks whether the world is finally waking up to how important heat pumps will be?

It seems archaic that in the 21st century, around 2.8 billion people worldwide still rely on burning solid fuels (wood, dung, crop wastes, charcoal, coal, etc.)

Today in Britain there are more than 1.5 million wood-burning stoves, and about 200,000 are added to that total every year.

Heating oil is used in about 1.5 million houses in the United Kingdom. Given the typical household size of four people, nearly 6 million people demand heating oil for hot water and central heating.

According to government data, domestic wood burning has become the single largest cause of small particle air pollution in the UK, emitting three times more than road traffic.

Yet just 8% of the population is responsible for such high volumes of pollution through burning wood indoors.

Tiny particle pollution can enter the bloodstream, get moved around the body, and lodge in organs, damaging one's health.

The world is waking up to the fact that heat pumps are important in combating climate change

Joe Bradbury Joe Bradbury Digital editor of Housing Association Magazine

Understanding the problem

Visualise a 27-foot-tall, 27-foot-wide, and 27-foot-long cube. A cube that's almost as tall, wide, and long as a telephone pole. That's how much space ONE metric tonne of CO2 would take up…

…The average household in the UK emits a whopping 2.7 tonnes of CO2 every year from heating their home.

With COP26 pegged as our last chance to curb irreversible climate change, the stark message has never been louder or clearer - we need to clean up our act and change the way we heat our homes fast.

Fuel poverty

As winter approaches, some of the most vulnerable people living with fuel poverty will struggle to keep their homes warm. UC has been cut by £20 in conjunction with an increased cost of living, which only serves to exacerbate an already critical issue.

National Energy Action, which campaigns to end fuel poverty, already estimates 12,000 people die each year from health conditions arising or worsening from having a cold home.

Currently, the supply of social housing in the United Kingdom does not meet demand, forcing many needy families to resort to the less regulated and more expensive private sector.

Rents in this sector are significantly higher, averaging £176 per week, compared to £98 for housing associations and £89 for local authorities. This means that the amount of money available to spend on home fuel is significantly reduced.

Changing bad habits

One of the largest factors to our individual carbon footprints is the energy consumed to heat the spaces we live and work in. Heat accounts for roughly half of all energy use and 40% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions on a global scale.

Warming our homes and workplaces is predicted to account for 19% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, with domestic buildings accounting for more than three-quarters of this.

Gas boilers are used in the vast majority of UK homes, but the British government has announced that they will be phased out over the next five years.

Households can switch to less carbon-intensive options such as electric heating, heat pumps, or even district heat networks, in which a central source heats water that is then shared among surrounding houses through a network of pipes.

Zero emission heating

Heat pumps are widely regarded as a major low-carbon option, with the UK estimating that 5.5 million will be installed by 2030, with a potential of 21 million by 2050.

Sadly, heat pumps met barely 5% of residential heat demand globally in 2019, yet they have expanded rapidly in particular locations. Around 40% of new homes in the United States now have a heat pump, while the EU market is expanding at around 12% per year.

Without making significant progress in eliminating the gas and oil boilers that heat over 90% of UK households, the UK's binding climate target of a 78% reduction in emissions by 2035 cannot realistically be met.

Time to switch to heat pumps

The heat pump is the only well-established heating technology that can deliver zero emissions from dwellings at present.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) states that to achieve the ambitious target the vast majority of households would need to be heated by pumps, with alternative heat sources including district heating, direct electric heating, and solar thermal.

Many other governments throughout the world, particularly in Europe, are already grappling with the need to cut building emissions and have made significant investments in heat pump-based heating systems.

Gradually, the world is waking up to the fact that heat pumps will be just as important as switching to electric cars in combating climate change… will it awaken fast enough?

Joe Bradbury is digital editor of Housing Association magazine