The first aim of this paper is to shed light on the thermodynamic reasons for the practical pursuit of low temperature operation by engineers involved in the design and the operation of combined heat and power (CHP) and district heating (DH) systems. The paper shows that the steam cycle of a combined heat and power generator is thermodynamically equivalent to a conventional steam cycle generator plus an additional virtual steam cycle heat pump. This apparently novel conceptualisation leads directly to (i) the observed sensitivity of coefficient of performance of CHP to supply and return temperatures in associated DH systems, and (ii) the conclusion that the performance of CHP will tend to be significantly higher than real heat pumps operating at similar temperatures. The second aim, which is pursued more qualitatively, is to show that the thermodynamic performance advantages of CHP are consistent with the goal of deep, long-term decarbonisation of industrialised economies. As an example, estimates are presented, which suggest that CHP based on combined-cycle gas turbines with carbon capture and storage has the potential to reduce the carbon intensity of delivered heat by a factor of ~30, compared with a base case of natural gas-fired condensing boilers.