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James Parker, managing editor of Architects’ Datafile magazine looks at what we can expect from COP26

As COP26 begins, the eyes of the world are on the UK, hoping to see a conclusive set of carbon reduction proposals at the end of this vital summit.

One danger is that many countries, having been hammered by covid, will be having to ask their richer counterparts for investment, in order to produce the carbon savings urgently needed to try and stem the rapid decline of our environment.

The solid examples of governments launching credible, far-reaching and nationwide carbon-cutting programmes may be few and far between.

For example, Joe Biden’s Democrats are fighting among themselves about how to implement his Green New Deal, when there is little time to take action.

Our Government has launched the Heat in Buildings Strategy, but has also explicitly backed both heat pumps in it and the Future Homes Standard, and implicitly the development of new hydrogen solutions for gas boilers (in its Hydrogen Strategy), so many will be none the wiser.

With time so tight, everything counts

James Parker James Parker Managing editor of Architects’ Datafile magazine

A vacuum of clear direction

So, in this vacuum of clear direction on the means to zero carbon, it is left to corporations and industry sectors to come up with workable solutions in the short-term.

While these may be piecemeal and uncoordinated in terms of how they sit alongside each other, at least they represent concerted efforts. With time so tight, everything counts.

Of course, every ‘sustainable’ alternative must be interrogated on its own potential drawbacks, and now hydrogen has come under the spotlight for not necessarily being the ‘green panaceas’ many would hope for.

‘Green hydrogen’ does exist, however, where the copious amounts of electricity needed to produce the gas can be sourced from renewable sources. If the required investment is made, it may be a practical answer for upgrading millions of installed gas boilers across the UK.

In the meantime, the heat pumps industry continues to strongly lobby for an approach which moves us away from fuel ‘burning’ solutions, with commensurate investment of course.

We have to hope that the traditional ‘least cost’ approach doesn’t hold sway, and that genuine investigation into what works, long-term, on sustainability grounds first, is the watchword.

Changing mindset

Heat pumps also have their limitations, for example their efficiency drops in very cold temperatures, and they generally produce a lower level of heat to emitters, which is something that homeowners need to become accustomed to.

But the public mindset is changing in the face of worrying climate data, and huge numbers of people are prepared to compromise on the previous comforts they once felt entitled to.

There is also going to be a greatly increased drain on the national electricity grid, but the challenge of making it robust enough to provide 100 per cent reliability should not be a reason to adhere to fossil fuels in the midst of a climate emergency.

Orkney experiment

A fascinating pilot study on Orkney is experimenting with green hydrogen for powering boats, boilers and ovens, and will produce many applicable ideas across a range of sectors.

Oil companies are said to be waiting in line to take charge of green hydrogen production on the back of its findings, although it may be that it’s in such off-grid island settings that its use is most urgently needed if the current energy price crisis persists.

It hasn’t as yet been tested on a mass scale within the UK gas network.

A clear framework is needed

Some experts are saying that while green hydrogen research is very encouraging, there is a greater need for it to be used to achieve the carbon reduction challenges in areas such as fertilisers, shipping, steel production, off-road vehicles and aviation first, before it’s adopted for home heating.

The Government has disappointingly delayed its decision on whether to promote hydrogen for heating until 2026. 

The heat pumps and hydrogen camps obviously have their own interests in mind as well as those of the ecosystem, but it would be good if the government could provide a clear framework of where building services design currently needs to be on this specific, and increasingly pressing subject, for both new build and retrofit.

Handing out five grand to homeowners towards heat pumps and phasing out gas boilers from 2055 really isn’t good enough.

James Parker is managing editor of Architects’ Datafile magazine