Opinion: Policies for tackling climate change must work in rural areas too

Image credit: Dominic Wade, CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

By Brian Wilson, a Director at Rural England CIC, a not-for-profit research organisation which seeks to improve the evidence base and understanding of rural issues.

The UK has made a legal commitment to reach net zero for greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. Some notable progress has been made, most obviously with power generation, but a greater push is needed soon in other spheres, such as home heating and transport. Indeed, pressure for more action is building ahead of this November’s UN climate change conference – or COP26 summit – which the UK Government will be hosting.

If net zero policies are to achieve their goals, they must work effectively in rural, as well as urban, locations. All too often Government policies are designed around urban living, without proper thought given to the one in six of us living in rural settlements. Yet policy makers cannot take for granted that what works in an urban centre will also work in a rural location.

As a report recently published by Rural England CIC finds, policies to slow climate change will, for example, need to address the fact that half of village homes lie off the mains gas grid and much of the rural housing stock is old. Similarly, that rural residents must typically travel further to reach jobs and services, whilst many of them simply don’t have a public transport option.

Likewise, there are opportunities arising from the changes needed to become net zero. Green growth will create new jobs and new businesses. New home heating sources and better insulation will need installing and maintaining. Some communities will seek to benefit from local power generation initiatives. Rural businesses and communities will want to share in these opportunities.

Government has promised to publish a Heat and Buildings Strategy soon, setting out a framework for moving away from the use of carbon emitting fuels to heat our homes and buildings. If rumours are to be believed, off grid homes (nearly all in rural areas) may be an early target for policies.

That is a challenging target which covers a wide variety of building types. Some may be suited to electrified heating using heat pumps – which seems to be the Government’s preferred solution – but many are probably not. For older homes, in particular, installation costs are likely to be high and the technology may not work effectively, since heat pumps work best in well-insulated buildings.

A better strategy may be to scale-up the market for heat pumps in easier urban locations, whilst taking a more flexible approach towards hard-to-heat rural homes that supports a range of reduced or net zero technologies and fuels.

With transport, the switch to electric and hybrid vehicles is starting to take off. Barriers such as vehicle cost, range between recharges and charging speed are coming down. More public charging points are needed in rural locations, including for visitors and those travelling through. For larger vehicles not suited to electrification – buses, HGVs and tractors – hydrogen may prove the solution.

Alongside this the growth in home working should reduce the need to travel (for some). Retaining local services in rural settlements would certainly help: stopping the closure of village shops, banks and other outlets may well have a greater impact than electric vehicle sales.

The path to net zero requires some clear direction from national policies, which are then sustained over a period of time. That will help consumers to make informed choices and give businesses the confidence to invest in green technologies. However, policy measures being developed must be put through a rural filter. On this increasingly urgent issue, all areas and communities must be able to contribute, otherwise it will be ‘not zero’.