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by Kyle Usher, Nesta
06 October 2021
Associate Feature: Reducing household emissions of Scotland's traditional architecture

Associate Feature: Reducing household emissions of Scotland's traditional architecture

In less than a month, COP26 will be underway in Glasgow. The eyes of the world will be on Scotland and politicians from across the globe will be here to talk about urgency and the need to work together to reach net zero targets.

One of the most important steps for us to reach net zero will be cutting the emissions from our homes, which make up 15 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions across the UK.

For the necessary reduction to be possible within the 2045 net zero timeframe set by the Scottish Parliament, we will need to fundamentally change the way we warm our homes.
The vast majority of Scotland’s 2.5 million domestic dwellings will need to have a low-carbon heating system installed to replace the carbon-intensive natural gas that makes up approximately 80 per cent of Scottish household heating fuel.

Today, heat pumps - which draw warmth from the ground or the air outside and use it to heat a home’s water system - are one the best and most readily-available alternatives to gas central heating. Nesta is working across the UK to accelerate the installation of ground and air source heat pumps in as many homes as we can as part of our ambition to help cut household emissions.

But heat pumps are not a cure-all. They are currently expensive to install and costly to run in poorly insulated homes and this poses a particular challenge in Scotland. Due to a mix of architectural heritage and poor energy efficiency in older housing stock, installing heat pumps at sufficient scale in Scotland will only be feasible with considerable preliminary work to prepare our homes for a different way of keeping warm.

Traditional Scottish tenement buildings, including medieval, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian examples, make up 28 per cent of Scotland’s urban housing stock and are a world-renowned architectural feature across our cities. They are recognised in the UNESCO World Heritage status granted to Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns. But, built with solid wall construction that is difficult to insulate, they typically remain uninsulated and expensive to heat. To make housing like this ready for low-carbon heating alternatives such as heat pumps would require substantial and costly energy efficiency measures including to the fabric of the buildings (which is often prohibited by current planning restrictions). Any efficiency improvements would also need to navigate the complex shared ownership regulations and listed building status of most tenement properties, as would the siting of a heat pump on the exterior of the building or in a communal garden.

To navigate these challenges will require researching and testing entirely different solutions. What replaces the gas boiler will likely be different in different homes and in different parts of the country. For some, the low whirr of a heat pump may replace the hum of a boiler, for others ceiling-mounted infrared panels may warm the objects and people in the room, rather than the air. For others still, new payment models or communal heat sources such as heat networks may help us to cut our emissions. Or perhaps we will find other ways to heat our homes with renewable energy that are cost effective and simple to install over the next ten years.

In its Programme for Government 2021-22, the Scottish Government has set aside £1.8 billion over the next five years to make homes easier and greener to heat, including a minimum of £465 million to support those least able to pay for home energy improvements. Other promised measures include a public communication programme to encourage home upgrades and raise awareness of the support and advice available.

These policies are encouraging and timely. But to design, trial and apply the innovative solutions we will need at the scale we require and within the narrow window of time that we can afford, means harnessing knowledge, experience and insight from across different disciplines and sectors now.

When it comes to something as fundamental as how we heat our homes, we have an obligation, across the public, private and third sectors, and across communities and households, to start working together now to explore how we stay warm in our net zero future.

This article was sponsored by Nesta.

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Energy

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