Placing decarbonisation of buildings on the international agenda means heat pumps can finally have their moment in the spotlight, says Richard Lowes of the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP)
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
Heat pumps are one of the only feasible low-carbon heating options available to building owners
Interest in cleaning up heating has been building for some time—an inevitability of decarbonisation. But the Russian war on Ukraine, and the impact on global gas markets, has put clean heating and removing exposure to fossil fuels on centre-stage.
At the UN’s COP27 climate change conference in Egypt, plans have been set in motion to make buildings a specific agenda under the “breakthrough” programme, launched at the Glasgow talks in 2021.
The purpose of the breakthrough programme is to encourage international collaboration on some of the biggest climate change problems, while simultaneously stimulating market development and helping to meet wider sustainable development goals.
There are existing breakthroughs for the power sector, road transport, hydrogen and steel. Responsible for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, the buildings sector is a timely addition.
In buildings, the biggest chunk of energy demand and emissions is associated with heating. Around 60% of the world’s current heat use is provided by fossil fuels. Broadly speaking, keeping to commitments in the Paris Agreement requires removing greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore fossil fuels from heating, by 2050.
Currently, however, the buildings sector is not on track for the Paris Agreement and it is clearly in need of much greater attention and effort. Reducing the demand for heating by making buildings more efficient can directly reduce emissions and is undoubtedly a vital part of clean heating.
However, even if buildings are made more energy efficient, some heating and undoubtedly hot water production will still be needed and, fossil-fuelled heating systems still need to be replaced with low-carbon alternatives to reach zero emissions. In fact, the emission impact of switching clean heating can be much bigger than that of efficiency measures.
Heat pumps are invariably seen as a critical low-carbon heating technology. In the International Energy Agency’s net zero emissions by 2050 scenario, they become the dominant global heating technology by 2030 with 1.8 billion units installed, covering the vast majority of buildings by 2050. Analysis by McKinsey shows a similarly explosive growth trajectory for heat pumps and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes them as a “central” heat decarbonisation technology.
Heat pumps are widely seen to be so important because most of the energy they produce is taken directly from the environment (outdoor air, water, etc.) and therefore naturally clean. The electricity to power them can also come from green sources and the fact that renewable electricity is getting cheaper means that the economics of heat pumps is getting better.
Quite simply they are a clean and cost-effective option and the truth is few other low-carbon heat options exist.
Despite their excellent attributes and while the market is growing, heat pumps are not being installed at the rate needed for the world’s climate targets. They require significant support from lawmakers.
To really accelerate the deployment of heat pumps, there is a strong need for policy packages. This is because single stand-alone policy measures, while useful, are unlikely to be enough for the radical and rapid change needed.
Rather, lawmakers need to coordinate the use of multiple tools to ensure that a heat pump rollout is rapid, smooth and equitable. This heat pump coordination needs to happen alongside the implementation of energy efficiency programmes and the fitting of heat networks.
There are three key elements (or pillars) that need to be considered in heat pump policy packages. Firstly, lawmakers need to guarantee that energy pricing and taxation supports clean heating without encouraging fossil fuels. Secondly, financial support, such as grants, should be available for buildings and homeowners where needed. Thirdly, regulation should be used to drive clean heat appliance purchasing.
Successful heat pump deployment requires active coordination by lawmakers around issues such as skills, energy system integration and communication. These are less traditional energy policy approaches, with policy historically tending to focus on changes at the scale of infrastructure. But to deal with heating, such a large and also personal part of the energy system, requires a new, more user- and installer-centred approach.
The role of buildings is now emerging as a major global energy transition focus. With time being of the essence, only collaboration at a global level will be sufficient. A buildings breakthrough might be the spark that lawmakers need to reap the benefits of clean heating. •
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