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Gas boiler subsidies ‘baffling’ given net-zero target

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The UK government has been accused of “wasteful and baffling” moves to pay low-income households to install new gas boilers, while pursuing the legally binding goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Documents from the Business Department show how the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), which uses funds raised from surcharges on energy bills to pay for efficiency measures such as insulation in fuel-poor households, could also see 20,000 homes receive new central heating systems with gas boilers.

Homes account for around 14 per cent of the UK’s climate pollution. The vast majority of homes get their heating and hot water from fossil fuel-based boilers which contribute to carbon emissions. Cutting emissions from heating is a key part of the UK’s efforts to decarbonise in line its Paris Agreement commitments.

Experts also warn that gas boilers expose families to air pollution. With gas prices on the rise, they could also lock households into a much more expensive option than heat pumps over their lifetimes.

“While it’s important that vulnerable households are supported in staying warm at home, installing new fossil fuel boilers – which contribute to harmful air pollution in homes that are already more likely to have poor air quality – just means that fuel poor families are locked into dirtier, more expensive and more unhealthy heating systems for longer,” said Jess Ralston, an analyst with the Energy, Climate, and Intelligence Unit. “It’s wasteful and baffling when it’s clear that a clean-heating revolution is just around the corner and gas prices are rocketing.”

Ralston called on the government to make the approach of a different energy efficiency scheme for social housing, which excludes support for fossil fuel boilers, the norm.

Jan Rosenow, a director at the Regulatory Assistance Project, commented: “Reducing carbon emissions from our homes is absolutely critical to meet the climate targets. But paying people to install new heating systems running on fossil fuels is incompatible with the UK’s climate goals.”

“Rather than subsidising gas boilers, we urgently need a policy to support the transition to clean heating.”

He added that other countries have stopped providing public subsidies for fossil fuel-based heating systems and urged the government to lead by example ahead of the COP26 climate talks, which will be hosted in Glasgow during the UK’s presidency.

The potential gas boiler subsidies come as the government is expected to announce details of its strategy to transition from carbon-polluting heating devices. Reports suggest that households could receive grants worth thousands of pounds to install clean alternatives to gas boilers, such as heat pumps. Heat pumps, which run like a refrigerator in reverse, significantly lower heating bills but come with a large up-front cost of around £10,000 for installation, preventing many households from making the switch.

According to figures published by Greenpeace UK, the UK is lagging behind its European neighbours in heat pump installations. Of the 21 countries for which data were available, the UK is joint last on heat pump sales (1.3 heat pumps per 1,000 households) and second to last on total installations (10 per 1,000 households).

A Business Department spokesperson said: “While we remain committed to transitioning away from gas boilers over the next 15 years, we make no apology for supporting low-income households in the short term to replace a limited number of the most inefficient gas boilers, thereby cutting energy bills and carbon emissions. The majority of the 3.3 million measures installed under the ECO so far are insulation measures, and we expect that to continue in the future.”

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