Heat pumps and domestic heat decarbonisation in the UK: a systems thinking analysis of barriers to adoption
Heat pumps are a cornerstone of the government’s decarbonisation agenda in the United Kingdom.

Heat pumps are a cornerstone of the government’s decarbonisation agenda in the United Kingdom. The electrification of domestic heating, underwritten by the installation of ground-, air-, and water-source heat pumps is expected to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 15 – 17%. In late 2020, the Johnson government announced a target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028.

In mid-2023, despite a grant fund of £450m, data revealed the UK was installing 55,000 heat pumps annually, suggesting the government’s goal is unlikely to be met. Consumers of domestic heat pumps in the UK are owner-occupiers, developers, private and social landlords, as well as local councils responsible for social housing (although tenants are the primary beneficiaries in the last three instances).

This report investigates the reasons for this profound gap between government intentions and consumer behaviour. Key actor interviews as well as scrutiny of secondary scientific literature produced data that was interpreted through a systems thinking method of analysis. Systems thinking conceives of outcomes as emergent properties where different aspects and dimensions of the system interact and influence one another. Consequently, this research was interested in identifying relevant negative and positive feedback loops that contribute to the suboptimal uptake of heat pumps. Systems thinking analysis is particularly useful when making policy recommendations since policy interventions are seen as mechanisms necessary to disrupt undesirable feedback loops and, thereby, overcome what are commonly thought of as market failures.

Author(s): Nicholas Harrington
Published: 14 November 2023
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