A winter of discontent
How can we continue to heat every home in the country?
It got cold, suddenly. You’ll have to forgive me for the lateness of this week’s edition of Urban Nature Diary, because some unfortunate timing means my flat is without heating or hot water for the foreseeable.
When we moved in a couple of years ago, one of the last things the previous owners did was install a new gas boiler. Clearly they went cheap, knowing they weren’t destined to be the owners of the flat for much longer, and we’re paying the price now. Because it turns out the entire system was installed incorrectly and dangerously, and we face a bill of over £10,000 to get it put right.
Hence my attention has been largely focused elsewhere this week.
But it’s also given me further insight into the world of heating, energy, and the problematic normalisation of how we use it. If we’re going to build a society that exists in harmony with the natural world and allows nature to thrive, we need to stabilise the climate. Fast. And part of that is significantly cutting the emissions from the UK’s 30 million homes (and counting).
To understand where we go from here, we need to understand how we got here in the first place.
Gas, gas, gas
The discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea represented the kick-start of modern Britain in the late 1960s. A seemingly endless supply of fuel for transport, electricity generation, heating and export.
An opportunity to supply gas to every home in the country. A gas boiler in every kitchen. Need hot water? Turn on the gas. Cold? Turn on the gas. Thanks to oil and gas companies like BP and Shell, accessible gas turned the UK into a modern superpower.
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The history of oil and gas and economic development is long, complicated, and intricately tied up with colonialism, empire building, and many of the geopolitical conflicts seen throughout the years that continue to this day. I’d be crazy to even attempt to explain it all here when generations of writers have dedicated their lives to it. But if you ever take a trip to Stavanger in Noway, I strongly recommend visiting the Oil and Gas Museum. It’s an excellently narrated walkthrough of the history of oil and gas within Norway - a country which, much like the UK, also benefitted hugely from fossil fuels in the North Sea.
Unlike the UK, the Norwegian state invested directly in the oil and gas industry and set up the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Profits from oil and gas were invested, protected, and today it is worth well over a trillion dollars - the world's largest single sovereign wealth fund in terms of total assets under management.
The UK, meanwhile, left it to private firms to handle oil and gas. The result was not only a few company executives getting rich, but thanks to the UK government’s continued subsidising of the sector, BP and Shell paid almost no tax in the UK between 2015 and 2020.
Norway can operate all of its public sector on its wealth fund’s interest alone. The UK - well, if you live in the UK and have ever experienced the pressures of the NHS, or schools, or the inefficiencies of local councils - you get the picture.
But the oil companies aren’t bothered. They’re becoming fabulously wealthy. So it was of course within their interests to pay attention to the scientists who - for decades now - have been ringing the alarm bells about the dangers of our insatiable thirst for fossil fuels. By 1970, Exxon Mobil’s own scientists had very little doubt that accelerating greenhouse emissions would have significant, potentially catastrophic impacts on our planet as soon as 2050.
So in the wake of this knowledge, it seems natural that oil companies would pivot to investing their immense profits in renewables, setting themselves up as leaders in the solar, wind and tidal sectors and ensuring a monopoly on an infinite supply of energy utilising the planet’s natural elements.
Obviously, they didn’t. Instead they invested in global PR campaigns that denied their own scientists’ research, and doubled down on fossil fuel extraction.
So here we are today, with the undeniable behemoth of climate change bearing down on us with temperature records breaking on an almost yearly basis, reaping what we sowed back in the 1960s.
An unstoppable transition
But renewables are increasing. The IEA’s latest report suggests that the global transition to renewables is breaching cruical tipping points and becoming “unstoppable”, much to the anger of pantomime villain oil bosses. For the first time ever, the world invested more in solar power in 2023 than in oil.
Are these renewables increasing enough? Not currently, no. Renewables need to triple in capacity by 2030. Companies need to invest in battery storage to run energy grids when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. The below is a breakdown of the UK’s electricity generation over time - and we still rely on natural gas for 40% of our lights, laptop chargers, and binge-watching Married at First Sight.
Which reminds me that as well as transforming how we obtain energy, we should also reassess how we use it. Instead of viewing it as an infinite resource and struggling to expand global power generation to keep up with our wasteful lifestyles, we should spend our energy on what really matters and settle for less. Less streaming of mind-rotting TikTok videos. Less production of fast fashion garments that are thrown out after just a couple of uses. Question why flying to Edinburgh is five times cheaper than taking the train.
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This requires a deeper dive into the human society we’ve built for ourselves, but what’s important for me right now - as my fingers being to succumb to frostbite - is heating.
The future of gas boilers
Better late than never, in an effort to decarbonise, the UK government pledged to ban the installation of new gas boilers by 2025. For reasons known only to themselves (and presumably fossil fuel shareholders) this ban has been delayed to 2035 - and only then affecting the installation of gas boilers in new developments. What about the rest of the country? The vast majority of homes in the UK that run on central heating run on gas. And between now and 2035, gas boilers will continue to be installed.
When the plumber looked at our gas system he immediately suggested replacing it with another gas system. A more efficient one, yes, but a gas system all the same. A system that means pumping out greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every time we want to warm up the home or have a shower or wash the dishes. A system that, if faulty, means the building could explode, or leak carbon monoxide and kill us in our sleep.
Call me avant-garde, but that sounds like a dumb system. Especially when faced with alternatives like air source heat pumps, or electric boilers that could run on wind and solar.
And this is what I’ve been exploring all week. An air source heat pump takes in air from the surroundings, operates very efficiently on a low amount of electricity, and turns into wonderful warm heating. But it requires an external installation, which requires planning permission from the freeholders, which is a huge faff and the reason why many heat pump installers are refusing to entertain the notion of working in flats (Octopus Energy, I’m looking at you).
Electric boilers reduce direct emissions by not spewing harmful gases into the atmosphere every time you wash your hands, but the cost of running them is at least four times the cost of gas. With poor insulation, the system has to work hard to keep up - maybe even using more energy than a gas boiler. Because until the national grid is completely decarbonised, that electricity will continue to be generated by fossil fuels.
If the UK government is serious about attaining any form of its net-zero targets, it can’t make half-baked pledges about acting on some gas boilers in over a decade from now. We need to decarbonise every building rapidly and on a national scale.
What’s a tangible way of achieving this? Thanks to a recent increase in government grants, applications for heat pumps have soared. But even this was after the UK missed its heat pump targets by a very considerable way.
Some advocate for the installation of a free heat pump in every low-income household. Maybe if we had taken a leaf out of Norway’s book we’d have the cash to do that right now. But there’s no point in crying over spilt oil. We’ll just have to tax oil companies properly instead. Force them to invest the hundreds of millions per year they need to invest in renewables. Relax the planning permission hoop-jumping needed to install heat pumps and solar panels on blocks of flats.
I’m happy to stump up the additional running cost for switching my gas boiler to an electric system and utilise renewable tarrifs wherever possible, but many people can barely afford to heat their homes already, let alone pay for a complete retrofit.
Massive, nationwide governmental intervention is a necessity if we are to make it through this mess. The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic has proved that is completely possible, but until then, individual and collective action is all we have. If I have the ability, it’s a moral responsibility and my duty as a citizen of this planet to try and decarbonise my flat and make conscious decisions about what I spend energy on.
But in the meantime, I’ll be the one wearing three jumpers, doing star jumps in my kitchen.