Johnson poised to backtrack on mid-2030s gas boiler ban

UK politics & policy updates

Boris Johnson is expected to water down plans to ban the sale of new gas boilers in the UK from the mid-2030s over concerns from ministers and Conservative MPs about the cost to consumers of transitioning to net zero emissions.

Replacing millions of gas boilers is a key part of the UK’s strategy to hit its 2050 net zero target. Any move by the UK prime minister to backtrack would likely trigger a backlash from climate scientists and environmental activists, ahead of Britain hosting the UN COP 26 climate summit in November.

Emissions from buildings have remained stubbornly high. The residential sector accounted for nearly 21 per cent of all UK carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, with natural gas heating the main culprit.

The Climate Change Committee, the government’s official advisers, said last year that all gas boilers should be banned by 2033 if the UK wants to meet its legally binding net zero emissions target.

But ministers have become concerned about the costs of heat pumps — one of the few viable green options to replace traditional gas heating systems — according to those with knowledge of the plans.

This follows growing pressure in recent weeks from a number of Conservative backbenchers who have warned about the cost to consumers of the government’s net zero policies.

A final decision is not expected until the government publishes its long-awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy document, which is now expected this autumn.

Earlier this week, environment groups such as Greenpeace called on Johnson to set out “concrete policies to cut carbon emissions as fast as possible” after a landmark report by more than 230 international scientists warned the world was warming much faster than forecast.

One senior government insider said that a full ban on gas boilers by 2035 was unlikely, citing the concerns of ministers about the cost. “We were never going to definitely ban, this is a marathon not a sprint. It’s all about the transition: everyone rips out their boiler every 10 years so it’s going to be in the normal course of things,” they said.

A senior Whitehall official said that the government was focused on ensuring the transition would be affordable. “We’ll incentivise people to switch to low carbon alternatives and build up a domestic heat pump manufacturing base from scratch to drive down costs,” they said.

The official said ministers were exploring “other low carbon alternatives” to heat pumps, which can cost more than £10,000, such as hydrogen-fired boilers.

The debate on transitioning to net zero has caused consternation among some Conservative MPs, particularly libertarian campaigners and those representing the so-called red wall of former Labour heartland seats in England who are worried about the cost burden.

Craig Mackinlay, the MP for South Thanet, said he and fellow Conservatives were planning to formalise their opposition once parliament returns in September into a group called the net zero scrutiny group.

“I want to leave this planet in a better place than we found it. But I got elected as a Conservative to make people’s lives better, cleaner and cheaper,” he said

“Those on lower incomes always seem to suffer from high fuel taxes rather than the wealthy. There could be a disproportionate impact on the lower paid, and that is not in my view what Conservatives should be doing.”

Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister, has warned that the boiler ban could “leave Britain’s poorest out in the cold” and argued that the government needed to be clearer on the costs of achieving net zero.

One senior Tory said MPs were concerned for political and ideological reasons. “Some don’t want to be told what to do. There is a level of determinism involved in this they don’t like — that’s a perfectly valid Tory position. Others have particular local issues.”

A minister added that the government was “working really hard” to engage with MPs about their concerns. “There are no easy answers but we appreciate there will be some stressful decisions,” they added.

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