When it comes to phasing out gas boilers, the UK needs to catch up

Urgent action needs to be taken for the UK to meet its target of becoming net zero by 2050. But what action? The obvious place to start is to look at where our emissions come from. In 2022, homes were responsible for around 14% of carbon emissions, the vast majority being from gas boilers. We all know that the days of heating our homes with fossil fuels are limited, but how limited are they? And what options do we have for ensuring the British public part with their boilers in a way that is timely, yet fair and realistic?

The carrot and stick strategy of a boiler ban coupled with financial incentives for the replacement of boilers with a low-carbon alternative, such as a heat pump, is the direction we are currently headed. Predicting the outcome of such an approach is tricky. But luckily we have other nations’ transition away from fossil fuels to look at and reflect on.

The current position

The UK has about 23 million gas boilers, all heating the oldest housing stock in Europe. Despite attempts to encourage heat pump adoptions, it’s expected that 10 million new boilers will be fitted before 2035. The Future Homes and Future Buildings Standards aims to phase out boilers from new builds by 2025, replacing them with low-carbon heating from sources such as heat pumps.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy, released in 2021, announced an ambition for the installation of gas boilers to be phased out from 2035 in existing properties, too. This ambition wouldn’t force people to remove existing boilers but would prohibit them from purchasing a new one. However, it’s not set in stone and could be modified or scrapped if government priorities around decarbonisation shift.

One of the incentives designed to encourage homeowners in England and Wales to replace boilers with either a heat pump or a biomass boiler is the Boiler Upgrade Scheme. It provides a grant of £5,000 (or £6,000 for a ground source heat pump) but has had mixed results with only around 15,500 applications being made and around 10,000 being paid. It seems as though the scheme needs support to achieve the desired increase in heat pump uptake, especially when compared to the UK's target of having 600,000 installations per year by 2028.

What are other countries doing?

In the EU, there are around 129 million boilers, many of them being inefficient, with more than 50% having an energy label ranking of C or lower. So far, 11 nations other than the UK have announced a boiler ban of some form. Some of these boiler bans have already been in place for a few years and so can provide an example for others to learn from.

Denmark banned oil and gas boilers in new builds all the way back in 2013, whilst Norway banned fossil fuel boilers for both existing and new builds in 2020. As a result, Demark now only has 400,000 natural gas boilers remaining and plans to have replaced these with district heating or heat pumps by 2029. This could mean Denmark removes its last boiler at least six years before the UK even introduces its ban on new installations.

Similarly, Norway now has the highest concentration of heat pumps per person with 1.6 million heating a population of 5.4 million. Sadly we can’t simply copy policy from Denmark or Norway and expect to have the same results. There are quite large differences in population, geography, energy supply, and history (Denmark started widespread district heating in the 1970s) which needs to be accounted for.

The conflict in Ukraine has accelerated the transition away from natural gas boilers in a number of countries that rely heavily upon Russian imports. Germany has now brought forward its proposed ban on installing most new oil and gas heating systems from 2025 to 2024. This aims to transition to a full ban on all fossil fuel heating systems by 2045. Austria has introduced an even faster timeline with gas boilers banned in new builds from 2023 and the aim for all heating systems to be renewable or on biogenic gas by 2040. Interestingly both nations have taken differing approaches to funding replacement heating systems. Germany plans to provide a basic subsidy that covers 30% of the cost of a new heating system with a 20% bonus for those who are 80+ or on benefits, they also have a 10% extra incentive for those that switch before the 1st January 2024. Austria has taken a similar approach to the UK with a €7,500 grant. However, low-income households can have up to 100% of their costs covered and federal states can also provide additional subsidies.

Closer to home, Ireland is moving ahead with a ban on fossil fuel boilers in new builds from 2023 and expanding this to existing buildings from 2025. A final date for fossil-fuel-free heating has not been set, but given typical boiler lifespans of 15-20 years we can assume there won’t be many left by 2040. Irish residents are able to get a €6,500 grant to replace their boiler with a heat pump, a similar amount to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme in the UK.

Given the mixed start of the scheme in the UK, you would be forgiven for doubting whether the Irish version will be sufficient. But the Irish government has gone one step further by releasing a One Stop Shop Service that provides grants to cover every aspect of a full energy retrofit for homeowners. Those considered to be at most risk of fuel poverty can have many of their energy upgrades performed free of charge under the Warmer Homes Scheme. Whether this approach will bear fruit still remains to be seen.

France has taken a similar approach to the UK. Currently it has a ban on oil boilers in all buildings and a ban on gas boilers in new builds as of 2023. The topic of expanding this to existing buildings is currently being discussed via a consultation. Funding for heat pumps is considerable – up to €9,000 can be claimed for an air source heat pump and up to €15,000 can be claimed for a ground source heat pump. Generous subsidies have led to France having one of the largest populations of heat pumps in Europe with 3.9 million in total, which sounds high but is nowhere near the per capita numbers of heat pumps in Scandinavian countries. The subsidies available were only planned to last until 2024, the size and form of their replacement is still uncertain.

An alternative route has been taken by the Netherlands which has introduced hybrid heat pumps as a new minimum standard for heating homes from 2026 whilst also banning any new connections to the gas grid back in 2018. The hybrid heat pumps consist of a smaller heat pump coupled with a traditional gas boiler. The grants available are quite a bit lower than in neighbouring countries, up to €3,750 for a heat pump and up to €3,000 for a hybrid system. The lower levels of financial aid may still be a sufficient incentive when considering hybrid heat pumps could cost as little as €6,000.

What can we learn?

Simply copying other nations' policies by enacting strict bans straight away isn't necessarily the best choice. Creating new targets that are unachievable may lead to decreased efforts to even try as we “change the goal posts”. We need to be decisive and pick the earliest date that is realistically possible, then stick with it. It’s not realistic to expect the public to immediately part with sizable portions of their hard earned capital in the face of an outright boiler ban.

The incentives that ease this process are arguably more important than the bans themselves. Support needs to be given to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme by reaffirming the commitment to phase out fossil fuel boilers by 2035 or earlier. This would provide clarity and confidence for people considering their options for heating across the next decade. Alongside this we need to develop affordable finance to supplement the grants provided by the Boiler Upgrade Scheme. Households shouldn’t be facing such a sheer cost barrier when trying to adopt a low-carbon alternative such as a heat pump. The UK has a long way to go, but there is no reason why we can’t ditch our boilers with a tasty enough carrot and a determined guiding stick!

Author

Max Woollard

Max Woollard

Max Woollard

Analyst, sustainable future mission

Max joins Nesta as an analyst in the sustainable future mission.

View profile