Over recent months many of us have seen the cost of heating our homes increase. Reducing the carbon footprint of heating our homes wins on two fronts – financial and climate.
Having installed solar panels, cavity wall and loft insulation, and double glazing, and by dint of wearing more layers and showering less, we are continuing to reduced our gas consumption and energy bills.
Whilst not everyone agrees with their tactics, most now see the wisdom of Insulate Britain’s call that the Government should ensure the proper insulation of the UK’s housing stock. This is also relevant during heat waves when better insulated buildings remain cooler longer.
Layering up. As the temperatures become more seasonal, buying up the layers is a good ways keeping warm, whether that is layers of clothes or layers between us and the outside: curtains drawn at dusk, doors between rooms closed, draught excluders under doors, insulation in roof and wall spaces, rugs on the floors.
Scientists have long predicted tipping points in the climate crisis, vis events that will be triggered by rising temperatures and which will be irreversible even if temperatures fell. EG a temperature increase of 1.5C will cause the Greenland ice sheet to melt. Even if temperatures subsequently fall back that ice sheet cannot be recreated – it was the product of thousands of years of cold temperatures.
The widespread destruction of the Amazon rain forest is leading to another tipping point where the loss of tree cover, and thus the ability of the ecosystem to absorb water, such that other trees cannot grow.
But there are also positive tipping points. For decades the petrol car has ruled supreme. Roads and service stations have all been developed to facilitate the use of the petrol car. The more ecological option of an electric vehicle has been slow to take off. The initial cost of each vehicle was high as productions numbers were low and scale of economies as yet untapped. Recharging points were limited in number and far apart as low numbers of vehicle discouraged investment. All these factors deterred would-be consumers, and expansion was therefore slow. However in recent years, rising demand has boosted the impact of change. Soon a tipping point will be reached where the number of electric cars produced and used in the UK will exceed those reliant on fossil fuels. The number of charging points will exceed petrol pumps. Petrol stations and the huge carbon footprint of vehicular transport will become a thing of the past.
At present domestic heating is another big contributor to our national carbon footprint. The use of heat pumps and solar panels, and the equipping of houses with double glazing and insulation, will be the norm, with the economies of scale and the increasing number of qualified technicians ensuring the affordability of these options. There will also be the swing in social norms that means that everyone will expect such technologies and the alternatives of gas and oil fired boilers will be seen as antediluvian.
Whilst the number of people who follow a vegan diet has increased significantly, absolute numbers are still low as a proportion of the total population. So whilst the availability of plant based milks in cafés is widespread, there is not yet a comparable selection of vegan cakes and sandwiches. Whilst in restaurants there may be the option of a vegan burger and possibly risotto, we are still waiting for the time when the dishes at the top of the menu are vegan and meat based items are the minority fare at the bottom of the menu. But when that tipping point is reached and the vegan diet is the norm, the carbon footprint for our food will be reduced by more than a third.
In the past we have seen positive social tipping points past. We have moved from a society in which wearing seat belts in cars went from being the exception to the norm. We have moved from viewing a last drink for the road as acceptable, to one that deplores drink driving and where taking a taxi after an alcoholic evening is the norm. We have seen the change in expectation of maybe one holiday a year, typically in the UK, to two or three holidays a year with at least one involving taking a flight to hotter climes.
In Sweden ‘flygskam’- flight-shame – has led to a fall in the number of people taking domestic flights and an increase in those travelling by train. Here in the UK Flight Free aims to persuade people to give up flying, not through shaming them, but through providing people with both illustrative information that shows the damage and pollution air travel causes, and testimonies from people who have made the Flight Free pledge.
In the Netherlands 43% of people cycle everyday compared with 4% in the UK. Whilst a government survey found having off-road and segregated cycle paths (55%), safer roads (53%), and well-maintained road surfaces for cycling (49%) were most likely to encourage people to cycle more, there has not been sufficient investment to significantly improve the cycling infrastructure. In terms of tipping points, the more cyclists there are on a route, the more confident other cyclist feel about joining them. And the greater the likelihood of more investment!
We can all be part of the tipping process. If we make the beneficial changes the climate needs and talk about them with friends and family, at church, in the work place, at the gym and in the café or bar, the desire for change will grow in momentum and change will happen.
This summer is heat waves, drought and impending fuel crisis have highlighted our country’s unpreparedness for the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing, let alone the ones that are to come. Much of the responsibility lies with our government and its influence over big business. To this end Greenpeace has set up a petition asking for action from the UK government:
“You must do more to prevent climate change and protect us from the damaging impacts of extreme weather: – Deliver a proper plan to make our buildings and infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather – Improve national water storage to prevent future shortages – Force water companies to reduce leaks and increase the efficiency of household and business water usage ”
What does sustainability look like in daily life? I thought I would share our (me and my husband) experiences.
About ten years ago we installed double glazing, put solar panels on the roof, installed cavity wall insulation and fitted two wood burning stoves in an effort to reduce our carbon footprint. The cavity wall insulation and the double glazing produced an instant effect with the house feeling much warmer. The stoves, when we use them, warm the whole house. We have burnt wood from two trees felled in our own garden (both had grown too large) plus wood collected from a local tree surgeon. All reducing our heating costs and carbon footprint. Both stoves were chosen for their clean burn credentials but current scientific advice suggests we should not use them because of the contribution they make to air pollution.
Otherwise our main source of heat is a gas condensing boiler. To minimise our gas consumption and carbon footprint, we limit the hours when we run the boiler to an hour or so around breakfast time and for about four hours in the evening, turning the heating off about an hour before we go to bed. We heat only the rooms we use in the day time – kitchen, living room, study – plus the bathroom. We keep the thermostat at about 16C and wear several layers of clothes as necessary! Once the sun sets we draw the curtains in all the rooms, and these have thermal linings. In bed we have hot water bottles.
The boiler also provides hot water. When we upgraded the house’s insulation, we also replaced the bath with a low powered shower – think light rainfall. Over the last year we have cut back on daily showers, replacing them with a wash in the handbasin. The distance from the hot water cylinder to the kitchen sink is such that to get hot water, you need to draw several litres of colder water. As this ultimately waste hot water left in the pipe, we use a kettle to heat water for washing up. This saves about 5 litres of hot water a day.
This summer, given that we shower once or twice a week, we are cutting back further on gas by turning off the boiler. Instead we use the electric emersion heater when we do need hot water for showering. As we have solar panels, we aim to run the emersion heater when the sun is shining.
Our annual gas consumption for the last twelve months has been 6739 KWH and for electricity 1542 KWH.
Domestic energy use, ie for heating, lighting and electrical appliances, generates around 22% of the UK’s carbon footprint. The majority of that 22% comes from heating our homes. This is not surprising when you consider that 90% of homes are heated using gas boilers. Gas, one of the main fossil fuels, is burnt to heat water to warm our homes. As it burns, carbon dioxide is released. A three bedroom house with a 30KW condensing boiler will, for every hour the boiler is running, will emit around 7kg of CO2 or over the course of year around 3.65 tonnes of CO2.
It is obvious that we cannot continue to heat our homes using gas (or oil or coal) if we are to prevent the catastrophic rise in global temperatures. The Paris Agreement signed by parties at the Paris COP in 2015 set as it goal that participants should reduce carbon emissions so as to keep the rise in mean global temperature to below 2 °C .
In April 2021 the UK’s sixth Carbon Budget set the goal of cutting emissions by 78% by 2035. This time the Budget was set to also include the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions. This revised budget should put us three-quarters of the way to achieving net zero by 2050.
Parties at COP27 in November 2021 agreed that this target should be reduced further to just 1.5 °C. To achieve this target the means by which we heat our homes will have to be radically transformed.
This can happen in surprising ways. In Islington waste heat from the Northern Line is being soused to heat 1350 homes, a primary school and two leisure centres. In addition the heat is also generating electricity that powers lifts and communal lighting in a nearby tower block. Similar district heating solutions are being developed in other parts of the country too, for example heat extracted from a flooded coal mine in Durham will heat 1500 homes.
Both these projects use heat pump technology. This is the most promising solution for drastically reducing carbon emission whether heating a large office block or the average house. A heat pump is a scaled up fridge that works in reverse. Its refrigerant liquid absorbs heat from the air – or the ground – outside the building. This is compressed and transfers inside the building where it is released as heat via warm air or via warm water (for radiators or underfloor heating). The heat pump is powered by electricity. Heat pumps, in terms of energy used and heat produced, are at least 3 times as efficient as gas boilers. In terms of running costs, the carbon footprint of a heat pump will depend on the source of the electricity it uses. Electricity from a wind farm has a carbon footprint of 10-20g/KWh compared with 450g/KWh for electricity from a gas fired power station.
The Government’s net zero carbon targets anticipates the installing of 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. However in 2021 only 42,779 heat pumps were installed make this target look questionable.
There needs to be an expansion of both the production capacity of heat pump manufacturers and of the number of qualified heat pump installers, as well as improved Government finance to make the switch affordable for everyone.
The other approach to reducing the carbon footprint arising from heating our homes, is to insulate them. The better insulated a property is, the less additional heat is needed to achieve a comfortable level of warmth. Thus less energy is needed and one’s carbon footprint is reduced. A well insulated home also reduces draughts and cold spots which makes spaces feel warmer.
Home insulation options include:
cavity wall insulation
External wall insulation suitable for buildings with solid walls