Richard North, 26/10/2021  

Having hammered the theme of "net zero" policy for a few days, it might be thought appropriate to have a look round to see what else is happening, except that there are probably few things more important for the long-term stability and wealth of this country than the way this policy is implemented.

That is not to say that anything written on this blog will have any direct influence on the power brokers in Whitehall and elsewhere, but then it is a common complaint that Johnson's bubble has long ceased communicating with the wider world and is driven by a frighteningly narrow clique which acts without any reference to the real world.

However, there is still sense in plugging away at the theme, for the very good reason that we are on the cusp of events, where the untethered ambitions and aspirations of our ruling elites are about to collide with the real world, where the implementation of "net zero" will not be determined not by government fiat. Instead, the decisive factor will be the interaction of hard practicalities with the responses of ordinary people, who have to make decisions grounded in reality.

That much seems to have dawned on Max Wakefield, director of campaigns for the climate action group Possible, writing in the Guardian yesterday in a piece headed: "The next chapter of Britain's climate policy story will take place in the kitchen".

Mr Wakefield certainly has some understanding of the nature of power and its limitations, because he then goes on to say that, "The transition to heat pumps will affect almost every household in the UK, but it won't work without public support".

Of course it won't, and if nothing else I've written in the past few days has any impact, at least my piece yesterday draws on some of the issues which demonstrate why this corner of the "net zero" policy isn't going to work.

Before I expand upon Mr Wakefield's views, though, I need to refer again to the Greenpeace report to which I made reference yesterday, without actually disclosing the title. This was, "The UK's poor record on heat pumps", which rather illustrates the bien pensant view of a certain type of activist who sees everything good in what our European neighbours do, and will spare no effort to denigrate the UK.

Thus, the story Greenpeace wishes to convey is how backward the UK is in not embracing the continental penchant for heat pumps, coming last in the European league but for Hungary – such a poor performance, it jeers, that the UK "is being out-delivered on one of the critical, climate beating technologies by Poland, Slovakia and Estonia". That's not global leadership, it mocks.

For the benefit of a smaller number of readers on the comment section, though, I pointed out yesterday some of the reasons why this is so, which stem from a subtle amalgam of climate, cultural and economic reasons.

What people are failing to understand, I wrote, is that the island climate of Great Britain differs from the continent. This may be one of those "No Shit Sherlock" moments, but nevertheless, we would do well to remember that, in terms of general characteristics, we have a milder, wetter climate without the extremes of heat or cold that are experienced in the continent.

Anybody with a rooted understanding of how national architecture and construction standards develop will know that, in British housing, the traditional concerns have been as much to deal with dampness as cold, with condensation being the great enemy, requiring a high level of ventilation as well as heat. Dampness is by far the greater enemy.

Traditionally - and we go back centuries here - the need for ventilation as well as heat was perfectly served by the provision of open fires, with their high, point-heat output, and high draught chimneys. Central heating in domestic premises - even in large houses - was a rarity. The well-to-do would simply have the unattainable luxury of a coal fire in every room.

This meant that, in structural terms, there was no great advantage in building in high levels of insulation – any advantage is lost by the high air movement. This, in turns, dictated a certain lifestyle. People didn't rely on warm rooms, but warm clothing/bedding, and point-source heat - hence, the fire would be the focal point of the room, around which people would congregate.

As a result, in our older stock housing, there was never any provision for high levels of insulation. Retrofitting is often expensive and, beyond a certain level, impractical. It will often conflict with the need to maintain ventilation - we still have cold, damp winters.

This also has had an impact on the development of our heating systems, tied in with the ready availability of coal. From this emerged the ready availability of coal gas in every town, developing a peculiar British flavour to domestic heating (both space and water) which was not mirrored on the continent.

Then, in 1966, following the discovery of offshore natural gas, a national policy decision was taken to convert the UK supply from town gas to natural gas. With a conversion programme that took ten years, the country changed over to natural gas, followed by a dramatic expansion in appliance sales which ended up with 90 percent of British households being gas heated – sustained by cheap, plentiful supplies of the fuel. Gas increased its share of the primary energy mix from 5.4 percent in the 1970s to 40 percent in 2004.

This also differed from continental practice, where domestic piped gas is much less common. Also, the harsher winters promoted greater use of central heating which, in protestant England, was for a long time regarded as an almost sinful luxury.

When, latterly, we did discover central heating, the established lifestyles prevailed. Rather than adopt trickle, background heating in a heavily insulated, sealed house, most of us still leave our homes unheated for parts of the day, throwing open the windows to "let the air in" and keep dampness at bay. We then rely on short blasts of heat from the boiler to get the temperature back up to tolerable levels. Except in the most severe of weather, most people switch their heating off oversight.

And where, on the continent, gas was not readily available, oil-fired systems became common. Thus, when heat pump technology (invented in 1856) became popular after the 70s oil shock, there was a real economic gain from conversion. This was not one experienced in Britain where we enjoyed cheap gas and suffered relatively expensive electricity, and where the style of use did not optimise the performance characteristics of heat pumps.

Looking beyond Greenpeace's sneering, therefore, we see again this misfit between island and continental mentalities. We've done things differently here, and for good reasons. These have given us a different set of legacy problems, the combination of which make heat pumps a less attractive proposition for UK users.

Now we can look at what Mr Wakefield is saying, some of which has a certain resonance. He argues, quite rightly, that no major transformation was ever won by technology or policy alone. Someone always had to cough up the cash to engage the public. He uses Apple as an example, saying the company didn't expect the iPhone to sell itself.

From there, though, he takes a wrong turning, effectively arguing that governments need to "sell" climate change, implementing "educational and public awareness programmes".

"Carefully designed programmes actively to recruit the public to – and involve us in – the nuts and bolts of the zero carbon transition are no longer negotiable", he then says, concluding that, "If delivered alongside climate policies that preserve fairness, this week's starting gun could herald that necessary sprint into a safer and better world".

What Wakefield misses is the fact the Apple iPhone brought real technological benefits to users, which had immediate and valued practical applications. By contrast, in pursuing heat pumps, the government will be asking us to replace a reliable and familiar product with something that costs considerably more and does not perform as well.

Moreover, Johnson is seeking to avoid compulsion, relying on market forces and naive expectations that technological developments can force down the prices of heat pumps, making them comparable with gas boilers. Yet, it would be hard to find an example where the public opted for a product which offered inferior performance at greater cost and which, in the British context, simply does not fit in with the way we use domestic buildings.

Without compulsion, Johnson's ambitions to decarbonise domestic heating will come skidding to a halt. With compulsion – which will likely fall to his successor – the government will discover anew how stubborn the British people can be. Either which way, the government is going to get its own lesson on the limits of power.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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