As we near COP26 in Glasgow, architect and TV presenter, George Clarke explores the issues that matter

You know things are changing when Evan Davis on Radio 4’s ‘PM’ programme starts talking about Air Source Heat Pumps. Yep, that’s exactly what happened on my radio yesterday.

Evan Davis did a long feature on heat pumps and even visited a home that had one installed.

Unfortunately, he went to a big posh house in London where the install costs they mentioned were massive and over a third over the cost of a typical 4-bedroom house installation, so I’m worried his feature may have inadvertently put people off.

Anyway, Evan is going to be talking about heat pumps again tonight and over the next few days, which is all very exciting for us heat pump fans.

So why is he talking about this? Because things are changing and they are changing pretty fast. At last!

For me, the rate of change hasn’t been fast enough or big enough, but things are definitely happening. The next few months are massive for the UK and for the global green economy.

That just isn’t good enough and way short of the 600,000 a year by 2028

George Clarke George Clarke Architect and TV presenter

Build back greener

Just today the government announced its ‘Heating and Buildings Strategy’, which is part of a much bigger document called ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’.

On the face of it, it is very good. The government have committed £450m in grant funding so people can apply for up to £5000 towards the cost of their heat pump installation.

If a typical install is around £10,000 and the government give you £5,000 then the cost to you is broadly comparable with a gas installation.

This is a very welcome announcement as it is often the higher capital cost of an air source heat pump installation, over a gas boiler installation, which becomes the stumbling block for many people.

Just not good enough

However, the bad news is that the level of grant funding means only 90,000 heat pump installations will happen over the next 3 years.

That’s only 30,000 per year!

That just isn’t good enough and is way short of the Prime Minister’s wish to see 600,000 heat pumps being installed every year by 2028.

Remember, we have close to 29 million existing homes in Britain. There is a long way to go before all 29 million are heating their homes and hot water with, clean, green, renewable-energy technology.

But, we have to strive to get there and fast, but this funding falls way short for me.

The government see this funding as being a catalyst rather than an active ingredient for the heat pump industry. They see this cash as a boost to kick start more installations and reduce costs so overall prices fall and the market can then deliver more affordable installations.

Even if the money isn’t enough, at least heat pumps are high on the government’s list of ways for the country to meet its net-zero ambitions.

Insulate, insulate, insulate

What is worrying though, as I’ve been trying absorbing as much of the government’s published strategy today, is that I don’t see any significant steps or incentives for people to improve the INSULATION standards of their existing home.

This is a huge problem, because homes should be well-insulated before they even consider installing an air source heat pump.

Firstly, because insulating your home to the highest standard is the right thing to do. 

But secondly, if a home has insufficient insulation then an air source heat pump may actually struggle to heat the spaces to an acceptable comfort level.

A ‘FABRIC FIRST’ approach must happen in all of our existing buildings to keep them and us warm and avoid heat being wasted by escaping through uninsulated walls, floor and ceilings.

To not include a massive announcement to incentivise the upgrading of insulation standards in all existing homes is actually a travesty. 

Heat pumps AND insulation should have been given big financial incentives and government support in this announcement, because they go hand-in-hand.

Ban gas boilers

The big 368 page document published today at the time of writing called ‘NET ZERO STRATEGY : BUILD BACK GREENER’ covers everything from farming to nuclear power and carbon capture.

Lord Deben, the Chairman of the ‘Climate Change Committee (CCC)’ has been very positive and given the report the thumbs up because it sets clear environment targets and specific dates to meet them. 

However, the most cynical comments I’ve seen following the document’s publication is many believe that the governments initiatives for low carbon heating in homes is simply set to fail due to a lack of cash.

I don’t think the problem is a lack of cash. The problem lies in legislation because they should actually ban the use of gas boilers in all EXISTING homes (not just new build homes) and push for their replacement with low carbon heat pumps by a certain date.

A step too far?

Unfortunately, the government see this as a step too far.

They’ve specifically said today that they are not forcing us to change our existing gas boilers in our existing homes.

They don’t want to legislate like this because they hope consumers will just gradually change to heat pumps as the technology gets better, prices reduce, gas boilers become more frowned upon and heat pumps become more common throughout the country. 

Most people don’t know what they are or how they work. People have had oil and gas fired boilers for years and it is what they’re used to.

Change is difficult. Who knows if the market will naturally go this way. I hope it does.

And legislating to ban all gas boilers is tricky, certainly when you look at boilers in small apartments.

So many people live in smaller apartments in mid to high rise blocks across the country and it’s difficult to retrofit an air source heat pumps into a every single apartment in a tall apartment block because of the current size of the external air source heat pump unit and the fact you need a good size internal hot water storage tank.

Until external Air Source Heat Pump units become much smaller this isn’t an easy problem to fix, hence why I understand it is so difficult for the government to impose a blanket ban on all gas boilers, on every house type at the moment.

And now for some good news

The very, very good news is that government has announced this year that every NEW BUILD home from 2025 cannot have a gas boiler and must use heat pumps instead.

I’m pleased to say that I know a number of good house-builders out there who aren’t waiting until 2025, but are installing air source heat pumps in all their new housing developments already.

They’re doing this because want their teams to be ahead of the game in understanding the technology and they want to form strong working relationships with heat pump manufacturers like Mitsubishi Electric and accredited installers as soon as possible.

They want to gain all of that clean, green experience now and not wait 4 years. Unfortunately, many will continue to install gas boilers right up to the 2025 mark, because it is cheaper and it’s what they know. I suppose even the Victorians clung on to steam power until the very end.

And on to COP26

Also coming up, is probably the most important climate change conferences of all time. COP26. 

This is the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, which is being hosted in the UK, in Glasgow, from the 31st of October to the 12th of November.

The purpose of the conference is to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This is absolutely massive! Why? Because we can all eat less meat, recycle our plastic and drive electric cars, but it is the actions of powerful governments (as we have seen from the UK governments commitments above) and giant, super-powerful corporations that are going to have the biggest impact on climate change. 

We can personally make choices and we can all as individuals make a difference (and we should!), but it really is the big and the powerful who need to make radical changes to help us all save the planet.

Time to commit to targets

So, what are the aims of Cop26? Well, it is all about targets.

The Paris Agreement has a ‘bottom-up’ approach where countries themselves decide how much they will reduce their carbon emissions by a certain year.

I’m not saying I agree with this bottom-up approach, but it is what it is. Each country communicates its targets to the NFCC in the form of ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ known in the net-zero games as ‘NDCs’.

The NDCs submitted in 2015 were collectively nowhere near enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Simply not good enough, but it was the best countries felt they could do.

A lot has changed in the last 6 years!

Those who signed the Paris Agreement are expected to submit new NDCs every five years, which his known as the ‘ratchet mechanism’. The UNFCCC are looking to ratch-up the NDCs to a much greater level that needs those submitted in 2015, so we can hit our net-zero target.

So, COP26 is absolutely enormous. A colossal conference for Mother Nature and Planet Earth. 

It is the first test of the system that has been put in place for countries to submit much, much bigger NDCs. If the collective NDCs submitted at COP26 don’t reach the level needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees then, in my humble view, the conference will have failed.

A successful outcome will also depend on the developed countries honouring a pledge they made for developing countries to receive $100 billion per year by 2020 to help them put in measures to combat climate change.

This pledge has not yet been met.

A load of tosh

My biggest worry as COP26 is about to begin, is there are many powerful organisations and individuals out there calling for governments to slow down the ambitious measures they want to take to tackle climate change, because they feel the economy needs to fully recover following the global pandemic.

Slow down? Really? I think this is a load of tosh to be honest.

We can always use the economy as an excuse to continue damaging and destroying the planet.

The fact is we have an economy, which is based on extreme levels of growth and therefore its current set up actively destroys the planet. Our economic system IS the problem.

What these powerful organisations and businesses should be doing, is embracing the fact they we need to create a new green global economy, that we need to live and work in a very different way, so we all live within a new economic system that restores the natural world and allows the human race to live in harmony with Mother Nature.

We should be pushing harder than ever to create this new, forward-thinking global green economy, not shying away from it and continuing with a backward looking economic system and way of life which is a dirty mess and threatens our very existence.

The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC Report) states that in order for us to have a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, global emissions must halve by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050 and the only way that can happen is by “taking unprecedented action now!”

We cannot stall, we cannot falter, it must be FULL GREEN AHEAD, no matter how painful the transition may be.

I live in hope that the biggest climate change of our lifetime will be a great success, so the entire planet as one can celebrate.

George Clarke is an architect, writer, TV presenter and Ambassador for Ecodan air source heat pumps.