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Governing the UK’s Transition to Decarbonised Heating: Lessons from a Systematic Review of Past and Ongoing Heat Transitions

Prepared for The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)


According to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, the economically efficient achievement of Government’s legally-binding carbon-reduction target will require full decarbonisation of all heat in buildings and the decarbonisation of most industrial heat over the next 20 to 30 years (BEIS, 2018). This goliath task is not unprecedented. Indeed, the scale of this transition is similar to the UK’s former transition from coal to natural gas heating. Albeit, the rate of transition away from natural gas will certainly need to be greater than the rate of the transition toward natural gas to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

At present, Government’s commitment stands in sharp contrast with its inaction on heat decarbonisation to date. Under pressure to progress this agenda, Government has charged the Clean Heat Directorate with the task of outlining the process for determining the UK’s long-term heat policy framework, to be published in the ‘Roadmap for policy on heat decarbonisation’ in the summer of 2020 (BEIS, 2017). This report, resulting from one of six EPSRC-funded secondments, is designed to support early thinking on the roadmap by answering the research question: How can ‘Transitions’ research informs the roadmap for governing the UK’s heating transition?

‘Transitions’ research is an interdisciplinary field of study within the Social Sciences and Humanities that investigates the co-evolution of social and technological systems (such as the UK heating system) and the dynamics by which fundamental change in these systems occur. To investigate what insights this area of research may hold for the governance of the UK’s heat transition, a systematic literature review was conducted, focusing specifically on past and ongoing heat transitions across Europe.

The review uncovered learnings about the role of path dependency; power and politics; complexity; cross-sector interactions; multi-level governance; and intermediaries in shaping non-linear transitions toward renewable heat. This report illustrates each learning with real-world examples from case studies undertaken by Transitions researchers and concludes with a long list of policy and process-oriented governance recommendations for the UK Government.

Funding source: UKERC Whole Systems Networking Fund April
Countries: United Kingdom

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