Scrap those old boilers

I've just signed a petition at the 10 Downing Street website: "We the undersigned petition the prime minister to work with manufacturers of central heating boilers to create a 'Boiler Scrappage Scheme'," it says.

The petition was put there as part of a campaign, called Reheat Britain , started by plumbers' merchant Mick Williams. The simple idea is that by replacing the country's old, inefficient gas boilers it would be possible to achieve a major environmental benefit and conserve a valuable resource while at the same time creating employment and economic activity. It is an idea that goes very much with the spirit of the Green New Deal proposals that a group of us published last year.

Reheat Britain suggests that a limited and temporary fund is created, mostly from public sources but perhaps also including contributions from boiler manufacturers. It would work along similar lines to the car scrappage scheme, and it is estimated that an incentive of about £200 per boiler would be needed.

Unlike the car scheme, it would have the advantage of actually cutting emissions (no pollution standards were applied to the car scheme) and creating a significant employment boost here (rather than in Germany or Japan, as we import the vast majority of cars sold here). Existing regulations mean that virtually all new boilers on the market are now highly efficient and A-rated, and two of the leading manufacturers supplying these boilers for the UK market, Worcester and Baxi, are based right here in Britain.

Reheat Britain is already attracting broad support. This is not surprising when one calculation suggests that even a limited scheme, with the same level of funding as car scrappage, could help households to cut carbon at a rate comparable to the government's whole sustainable transport strategy.

According to the Energy Saving Trust, boilers account for about 60% of the CO2 emissions from a gas-heated home. By replacing a G-rated boiler with a new A-rated condensing alternative with better controls, household bills can be cut by up to a quarter.. In an average family home that could mean a saving of £235 a year.

Reducing gas consumption reduces CO2 emissions at the same rate, so a house that swaps a G-rated boiler for an A-rated alternative could also reduce its carbon footprint by as much as 15% with just this one measure – going a long way towards reducing the emissions of everyone in it. Perhaps the cabinet, who have all just pledged to cut their own emissions by 10% next year as part of the 10:10 campaign, should take note of this rather large number.

Initially, there will be a carbon cost in making and fitting new boilers. However, for an energy-using appliance like a boiler, the proportion of manufacturing emissions – compared with emissions from fuel used during its working life – is no more than a few per cent, and savings would begin to be made rapidly.

Helping businesses is another important benefit of the scheme. There are 120,000 registered Gas Safe plumbers and engineers in the UK, and many of them are sole traders or small businesses. Many are reporting difficulties since the credit crunch. This year Mick Williams's annual survey of his trade customers showed order books getting lighter for the second year running. In 2007, 28% of plumbers reported more than eight weeks of work on the books, a figure which plummeted to 14% this year. An immediate boiler scrappage scheme would help many of these businesses to stay afloat until new government schemes to promote new boilers and insulation come into effect in 2011.

And with many boilers made in the UK, when we keep hearing from politicians how concerned they are about the UK's manufacturing sector, here is a proposal to do something practical that will actually help people who are making things here.

This idea seems so sensible that I wonder why it hasn't been seized upon by ministers as a truly joined-up solution to the related and simultaneous challenges of energy security, climate change and recession. Having spent many years campaigning for policy change I would say that it is because the small- and medium-sized businesses that would benefit from this don't employ the professional lobbyists hired by the international auto firms.

I can't really see Mick and his colleagues getting access to G20 sherpa meetings, but I can very well imagine executives from the global auto giants chatting through the public-backed rescue of their businesses at the highest level – even though the energy security, environmental and even employments benefits are at best arguable.

One way to ensure the voice of greener business is heard is to sign the petition. Suggest to your friends and family that they do the same.

Originally published by The Guardian.