The climate column

About to switch the heating on? Read this first

Back in 1982, at the world’s first climate summit, they launched the Rio Earth Pledge – where people pledged to only heat and light the rooms they were in. It’s time to reinstate it, writes Donnachadh McCarthy

Friday 17 September 2021 12:51 BST
<p>‘The era of heating our entire homes to 20 to 25C and having endless hot-water on tap must end’ </p>

‘The era of heating our entire homes to 20 to 25C and having endless hot-water on tap must end’

With the climate emergency now causing fires, droughts, floods and famines around the planet, we just simply cannot keep burning fossil fuels to heat our homes.

The average UK household emits about 2.25 tons of CO2 every year from heating. The challenge is how to reduce this to zero as cheaply – and as fast – as possible. Certain sections of the media have reduced this whole complex debate to one raging about climate protectors seeking to “force” ordinary householders to install air source heat pumps (ASHPs). These are expensive to install (ASHPs cost around £5,000-£8,000 – compared to £2,000-3,000 for conventional gas-fired heating) and can cost twice as much to run as a gas boiler.

The problem with all these heated debates is that almost nobody is really willing to tell people the truth, which is that the climate crisis is now such a threat to the future of our civilisation that we must adopt urgent life-changing measures that will impact on our “standard of living”.

The era of heating our entire homes to 20 to 25C and having endless hot-water on tap must end – at least until we completely decarbonise our electricity grid.

If the government seeks to maintain our current lifestyles, that would involve eye-watering amounts of taxpayers’ money on heat pumps, solar panels, hot water tanks and solid or cavity wall insulation in almost every existing home in the country.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the government has been struggling to produce a plan to decarbonise heating, which it was supposed to produce this year prior to the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.

As most people currently do not have this sort of cash available, what can homeowners do in the absence of government funding? Well, the quickest way to slash our heating carbon emissions (and bills) is to return to the practice that I grew up with as a child: of heating only the living room and wearing traditional winter indoor clothing, such as thermal underwear and a warm jumper, so that the heating can be turned down to 18C or less.

This is crucial, as every degree you raise the thermostat adds approximately 10 per cent to your bills – and results in higher carbon emissions.

Back in 1982, at the world’s first climate summit, they launched the Rio Earth Pledge – where people pledged to only heat and light the rooms they were in. I took the pledge and have kept it ever since.

We also need to return to the normal Victorian practice of daily sink-baths, which use a tiny fraction of the hot water wasted in baths or showers. Having taken the pledge, the next step is to decide which zero carbon method to use to heat that single living room.

In rural areas, a wood-burner would be a cosy option. But due to local air pollution, we should not be expanding usage in urban areas, where 83.9 per cent of the population live.

Electric heating of some form must be the solution there – provided it is sourced from a genuine renewable electricity supplier such as Good Energy or Ecotricity. Switching the gas grid to hydrogen makes no sense, as it must be produced by using renewable electricity, which is inefficient; as electricity can be used to directly heat our homes. If you pledge to only heat the room you are in, then the installation of an expensive air source heat pump does not really make sense.

Infra-red panels are more efficient than expensive storage heaters or convector heaters, according to Paul Morey, CEO of Herschel Infrared, as both of these use convection to heat the air which rises. Morey says this means the air by the ceiling will be hotter and wasteful than the space occupied by the people below. He also says infra-red panels use radiant heat to warm the fabric of the room and its occupants – and is cheaper to run.

Panels for an average living room cost around £400 plus installation – we then need to ensure that the living room is well insulated, to avoid wasting the precious renewable electricity. Campaign group Insulate Britain, who recently dramatically blocked the M25, say that insulation can reduce heating bills and carbon emissions by about a third.

There is, however, a cheap first step: and that is to properly draught-proof the windows and doors of your living room. If your home has cavity walls, it seems like a no-brainer to get the whole house insulated – due to low costs and quick payback.

But if it is a solid-walled Victorian house and you have a few thousand pounds to spare (but cannot afford the £10 to £20,000 required to install solid wall insulation on the whole house) prioritise insulating just the internal living room walls, rather than secondary glazing. This is because most heat is lost through our walls.

And if you happen to have another £6k, invest it in a solar electric system for the roof (if it is generally south-facing). Another few grand would pay for a top-class wood-framed triple glazed window. Finally, £3k for a battery would remove much of your needs to import any electricity from the grid.

Almost all the experts I spoke to focused on whole-house heating, rather than encouraging the public to revert to a heat-the-room-you-are-in lifestyle, despite the severity of the crisis. I will write another column on their suggestions for decarbonising heat for this wasteful whole-house lifestyle.

But in the meantime, sort out your living room!

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