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Rishi Sunak net zero U-turn: Engineering industry responds

21 September 2023

Following Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's recent announcement that the UK will significantly water down its climate policy, key players in the engineering and energy sectors have voiced their concerns and recommendations regarding the Government's change of course.

(Image: Shutterstock)
(Image: Shutterstock)

Dr Matthew Trewhella, CEO of The Kensa Group, a UK manufacturer of ground-source heat pumps, expressed deep concern about the Government's decision to backtrack on its climate policy, emphasising the need to scale up investment in green businesses and sustainable solutions to achieve net zero. 

He criticised Sunak’s decision as being rooted in personal interest, rather than being for the benefit of future generations “Our planet's future is being cynically used as a political bargaining tool," he said. Former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg has further backed Sunak’s decision as politically beneficial, telling GB News: “I think these changes could win the Conservatives the next election.”

In contrast, Trewhella applauded the progress that the sector has made in its sustainability efforts over the past few years, citing the work of his own company as an example. “British businesses have been innovating, investing, building supply chains and creating green jobs based on the UK’s net zero transition strategy. 

“As recently as May 2023, the Kensa Group announced a £70 million investment into ground source heat pumps by Octopus Energy and Legal and General and we are already scaling up our business development, operations and R&D efforts to help drive the transition to low carbon heating and cooling.

“We are making excellent progress towards our vision of a subsidy-free, low carbon heating and cooling future that is greener, cheaper and safer than fossil fuel heating."

According to Trewhella, stalling progress towards would be shortsighted, regressive, and detrimental to the British economy. “It will negatively affect consumers by keeping bills higher and homes less efficient. Delaying our transition to net zero in 2050 means future measures will need to be quicker and more drastic.” 

Meanwhile, both Stewart Clements, Director of the Heating and Hotwater Industry Council (HHIC), and Jeff House, External Affairs & Policy Director at Baxi, welcomed the time afforded to ensure a successful switch to low-carbon heating. Both noted that the increased financial support through schemes like the Boiler Upgrade Scheme and Great British Insulation Scheme would incentivise homeowners to switch to heat pumps.

“We need to bring the public with us on a decarbonisation journey and driving consumer demand is a key requirement for developing the heat pump market in the UK,” said House. “By increasing the grant, we hope that more homeowners will be encouraged to make the switch to heat pumps over the coming years as we see the market continue to grow.”

However, as Clements pointed out, this initiative would require a significantly larger number of installers than initially estimated. According to data gathered by HHIC, the Government's prediction of 50,000 installers falls short of the actual need, which is closer to 100,000 installers – nearly equivalent to the entire Gas Safe Register. 

House also stressed the need to close the heat pump skills gap. “What has not been addressed [...] is the critical skills challenge that faces our industry. We still need to focus on bringing installers with us on this journey towards a greater adoption of heat pumps, so helping both heating engineers and their customers to become more comfortable with the technology is vital. 

“We must also encourage more talent into the industry to grow the number of installers required to reach the installation targets that remain in place.”

In addition, HHIC and Baxi emphasised the importance of industry working with the Government to phase out new fossil fuel installations from 2035. “Decarbonising the heating economy is possible, yet it will require a collaborative effort from manufacturers, trade associations and the Government to achieve the long-term goals outlined by the Prime Minister,” said Clements.
“There are still questions to resolve, including overall budget for the boiler upgrade scheme and how exemptions for 20 percent of homes from a boiler sales ban, as cited in the Prime Minister’s speech will work in practice,” House added. 

“If [the] Government works with industry to focus on addressing skills and the low-carbon heat supply chain, we will continue to make positive steps towards decarbonising heat and reaching net zero.”
Despite the Government’s decision to delay its net zero goals, Kelly Becker, Zone President, Schneider Electric UK and Ireland, spoke of the importance of UK industry remaining committed to its own goals.
“Schneider Electric is committed to supporting the transition to net zero to address the climate crisis. We’re seeing indications from businesses in the UK and Ireland that trends towards electrification, automation and digitisation show no signs of slowing down, and we will continue to enable these trends in service of net zero and a strong green economy for the UK in the future.”

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