UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has to plan for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 because his predecessor – and fellow Conservative – Theresa May assigned that target to law in 2019. Recent news that the UK is expected to drop a key part of its strategy to decarbonise heating via heat pumps, however, amplifies questions over how committed Sunak is to decarbonising on time.

Reports have emerged in recent weeks that the UK is set to cancel plans to fine boiler manufacturers that do not meet production targets for heat pumps, after intense lobbying from the heating industry.

The new penalty system – which was set to launch in April – would force boiler manufacturers to ensure that 4% of their unit sales are heat pumps, with a £3,000 penalty for every unit that falls short. The government has so far told reporters that “no decision” has been made on the matter.

The potential U-turn comes as Sunak is already under fire for rolling back other climate policies and putting the UK’s net zero by 2050 target at risk. 

A Net Zero Policy Tracker from the think tank Green Alliance – which analyses climate policy in the context of the UK’s five-yearly carbon budgets – shows that at the start of 2023, there were already 13% of required emissions cuts that were not covered by policy in the 2028–32 UK Carbon Budget.

That gap only increased over the course of the year. Following the government’s so-called Energy Security Day in March – which saw 2,800 pages of new energy and climate policy – the share of emissions cuts not covered by policy grew to 15%. After Sunak publicly dropped several key climate policies in a September speech, the gap grew to 21%.

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The latest U-turn on heat pumps would only increase the gap – in sectors where there are already some of the biggest holes. According to Green Alliance, in buildings and industry – which is where low-carbon heating is most crucial to overall decarbonisation – only 27% and 26% of required emissions cuts, respectively, were covered by confirmed policy as of March 2023.

The UK is already significantly behind most of its European neighbours when it comes to heat pump installation, installing only 59,900 in 2022, according to the European Heat Pump Association.

Germany, France and Italy installed 236,000, 462,700 and 502,400 heat pumps, respectively, in the same period.

Decarbonising heating is crucial to net zero, as the sector represents 37% of UK emissions. However, as things stand, the entire heating ecosystem – from consumer to manufacturer – remains out of kilter with net zero by 2050.

A 2022 survey of UK consumers from found that almost half (46%) of respondents knew only “a little” about heat pumps, while policy announced last year to push back the deadline for the phase-out of fossil fuel boilers by ten years is set to lead to the installation of ten million gas boilers between now and 2035.

Any UK policy U-turn on enforcing heat pump targets would likely only compound such problems by weakening the policy signal to decarbonise heating further still.

The news from the UK comes as the EU has delayed the roll-out of its own heat pump action plan, to the dismay of environmentalists.