Over the last week, the government has finally started to straighten out its “net zero” policy, dropping some of the crazier targets, and coming into line with most of Europe and North America. In hindsight, it was always too good to last. The government has just updated its “strategy” on heat pumps – and even amid stiff competition it is one of its battiest yet.
Replacing traditional oil and gas boilers with heat pumps that run on electricity will play a role in combating climate change. No one disputes that. Home heating accounts for around 14 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions and unless that comes down it will be very hard to get to net zero.
The trouble is that very few people want to make the switch. Even though the government will soon be offering grants as high as £7,500 per home, heat pumps remain unpopular and take-up is running way below schedule.
So, like a Soviet commissar after a couple of vodkas too many, the government has just set a target instead. From next year, manufacturers will be told how many heat pumps they have to shift, based on the number of gas boilers they sell, and will face fines of up to £5,000 for every unit they fall short by.
Seriously? It is hard to know where this new wheeze of fining companies for not selling enough of government approved products might end. Wetherspoons could have an orange juice quota, with swinging penalties if someone buys a pint of Stella instead. And we could nab a few million from Gregg’s if sales of climate friendly vegan sausage rolls fail to match the high-pollution pork-based variety.
Ministers could no doubt have lots of fun, announcing different targets for all kinds of virtue-signalling products, while the Treasury chuckles over all the money the fines bring in.
It is utterly crazy. At this rate, a plumber you thought was just popping round to fix a leak will be surreptitiously installing a heat pump just to avoid a fine.
The real problem with heat pumps is that they are not yet effective enough, we have not worked out how to insulate our ageing housing stock so they generate enough warmth, and even if we fixed those two issues we most likely won’t generate enough electricity at reasonable cost to keep them all running through the winter.
The solution is very simple. Countries around the world are developing new heat pump technology, and other “green” home heating technologies are emerging all the time. Hydrogen might work, or high-capacity batteries powered by domestic solar panels, or extracting warmer water from underground. No one can say for sure yet. So we should wait and see.
It may be perfectly reasonable to subsidise heat pumps. And it is certainly sensible to explore better, cleaner ways of heating our homes. But fining manufacturers for failing to sell a product people don’t want will only backfire. The quota should be dropped before it does any more damage – and Rishi should learn from his recent successes.
Postponing the ban on the sale of new petrol cars to 2035, the same date as the European Union, has not caused the sky to fall in. Neither has dropping batty recycling ideas, or authorising a new North Sea oil field to keep the lights switched on while we build enough solar and wind capacity. Surely there’s room for common sense on heat pumps, too?