British Gas tries to smoke out patio heaters

There are warnings that the smoking bans across the UK will lead to a surge in carbon dioxide emissions as sales of gas for outdoor heaters soar. But the leading supplier, Calor Gas, says consumption has slumped during this rainy summer.

British Gas has joined the environmental outcry against patio heaters, which burn fossil fuel in order to heat the great outdoors. The energy company says last month’s ban on smoking in public places in England will lead to sales of the gas-fired heaters soaring as pubs install them to warm drinkers who are smoking outside. And it projects the resulting carbon dioxide emissions rising to 160,000 tonnes per year across the UK.

The company says its public attack on patio heaters is all part of positioning itself as an environmentally responsible energy supplier committed to helping its customers cut carbon. But Calor Gas, the largest supplier of propane cylinders for the heaters, said it knew “for a fact” that some permanently installed patio heaters belonging to pubs and wine bars were fuelled by mains gas – which British Gas supplies.

The Energy Saving Trust also fears there will be an upsurge in sales of patio heaters – which it condemns as “shockingly wasteful” – in the wake of the smoking bans across the UK. This is based on opinion polling that it commissioned, which found that 40% of pub-going smokers said they would seek pubs with the outdoor heaters.

British Gas has publicised its concerns in a news release and in an advertisement in the Guardian. It says that its own survey of 250 pubs in Scotland found half had purchased the heaters following the Scottish smoking ban, which came into force in March last year. Its emissions estimate is based on this kind of uptake for the whole of the UK.

However, the maximum projected uptake by pubs, hotels and restaurants suggested by the government – in a briefing from its Market Transformation Programme (MTP) – is one in ten establishments.1 It estimates this would increase UK CO2 emissions by 28,000 tonnes per year.

Meanwhile the LP Gas Association, representing suppliers of the propane gas that most patio heaters burn, said there was a slight increase in fuel sales after the smoking bans came into force in Scotland and Wales. It did not, however, expect rapid and sustained further growth. The association says total gas sales reached almost 7,500 tonnes last year, implying CO2 emissions of 23,000 tonnes. But sales so far this year had been sharply down because of the wet summer.

What soon becomes clear, amid the haze of outdoor tobacco smoke, is that no one really knows what effect the UK smoking bans will have for increasing CO2. And furthermore, it is evident that very little thought was given to this in planning the bans, either by devolved and national government or by the hospitality industry.

Any emissions increase will be small compared to the 560 million tonnes emitted by the UK as a whole in 2006 or even the 9.9 million tonnes produced by the hospitality industry. But for a nation with a target to cut emissions by 60% by 2050, every little increase counts.

The sector has pledged to cut its CO2 by 15% on 1999 levels by 2010 under its Climate Change Agreement with the government. But Neil Williams of the British Beer and Pub Association, which represents most of the UK’s pubs, said: “We don’t see this issue as significant, or as becoming significant. But if use of these heaters does rise dramatically, we’ll have to look at it.”

For the environmentally aware, patio heaters have joined gas guzzling cars and flights as icons of anti-environmental offensiveness. This is partly due to their rapid sales growth, partly the sheer waste involved in trying to heat outdoor areas.

Used outside a pub for five hours a night for two thirds of the year, a small heater would emit 2.3 tonnes of CO2 per year, according to the MTP’s briefing. That is about the same as a small diesel car with average annual mileage.

Before 2000 there were hardly any patio heaters in Britain, but the UK Leisure and Outdoor Furniture Association estimates around one million have now been sold, mostly to households.

One major garden centre chain, Wyevale, this year said it will stop selling patio heaters because of their environmental unfriendliness (ENDS Report 387, p 28 ). But they remain in its catalogue for now because the rainy summer has hit sales, prolonging the time needed to offload its stocks.

But B&Q, the UK’s biggest DIY chain, said it has no plans to stop selling patio heaters because it “does not dictate what customers buy and do at home”.

Although the great majority of sales to date have been to households, the threat of increased emissions comes largely from the hospitality industry. From polling household patio heater-owners, the Energy Saving Trust estimates that the average domestic model burns for only 21 hours a year, producing some 50 kilograms of CO2.2Calor Gas says that it urges its customers to use outdoor heaters wisely. The company also pays to offset the CO2 emissions associated with producing and distributing propane for outdoor heaters and invites its customers to offset the emissions that come from burning the gas.

“If they do so, we give them a sticker and a certificate,” said corporate affairs manager Andrew Ford.

But Calor is actively promoting outdoor heating to the hospitality industry as a response to the smoking ban. Its website features a small propane-heated shelter called the “Smokin’ Joe”.