Buildings in Britain’s low-carbon energy transition

It is well documented the role buildings can and should play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and help us achieve our long-term energy and climate objectives. That role is enshrined in both EU and national legislation. Andrew Warren, Chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, writes in the June issue of Energy in Buildings and Industry that a policy to ensure every new building would be zero carbon now lies in tatters as Britain continues to build to lower standards.



Policy changes to promote inefficient buildings


This is the tale of a long-standing, cross-party energy-saving policy. It ran for almost a decade. Before being torn up, on an ill-informed whim.


In December 2006 the Government published “Building a Greener Future: towards Zero Carbon Development.” This set out a detailed timetable intended to ensure that by 2016 every new building in England and Wales would emit zero carbon. The then Housing Minister (and future Labour leadership contender) Yvette Cooper stated: “A quarter of carbon emissions come from homes. A further 13% from non-residential buildings. That is why zero carbon buildings are so important.”


According to the official Regulatory Impact Assessment, having all new development built according to a zero-carbon standard would be saving up to 7 million tonnes of carbon by 2050, compared to a “no further improvements” option. As the simultaneous Treasury statement pointed out, “this measure will have an additional beneficial effect upon carbon savings for years to come.”


The following August the Minister hailed an agreement with homebuilders and local councils that would make zero carbon housing a reality by 2016. Stewart Baseley, chairman of the Home Builders Federation said: “Homebuilders are very willing to play their part…we very much welcome therefore the public pledge to partnership working by all those involved in the 2016 commitment”. That Commitment envisaged “an ambition to be building 240,000 new Zero Carbon Homes a year by 2016”. In practice, the actual number built is set to be below one thousand.


Evidence of the cross party consensus came when a Private Members Bill was promoted successfully into legislation as the Planning & Energy Act 2008 by Michael Fallon (now the Conservative Defense Secretary). This, he told Parliament, empowers councils to set “a minimum requirement for local energy generation and energy efficiency standards that are higher than the minimum” required under national Building Regulations.


His Act would “ give councils the certainty that they need, so that they are no longer dependent upon a supportive Minister or at the mercy of the latest lobbying at No.10.”


When the Conservatives re-entered government, within weeks the new Housing Minister Grant Shapps had stated categorically “we are committed to all new homes being zero-carbon from 2016.” It was a commitment reaffirmed by his successor (the present incumbent, Brandon Lewis) just before the May 2015 General Election.


By then the first two official steps towards zero carbon buildings had been taken, with Part L standards altered in 2010 and again (a year later than scheduled) in 2014.


However the second step only inched developers towards zero carbon, enforcing a meagre 6 % increase in thermal efficiency compared with the levels set in the previous revision in 2010.This was far lower than initially anticipated.

These earlier hesitant changes mean that today’s new private homes are only 25% more efficient than those required back in 2006, when that zero carbon timetable was adopted. Those occupying new housing association or council built homes do enjoy better conditions: where higher fabric insulation standards have continued to be   mandatory – ensuring that between 2007 and 2014, 79,000 new social homes have been ensuring lower running costs for tenants.

To make the zero carbon standard acceptable to the development industry, even by 2013 the government was offering a compromise for these 2016 changes. Instead of requiring true “zero carbon” in 2016 as originally envisaged, now developers could build to a less ambitious level. Under this plan, the original 100% on site commitment was to be slashed. Detached properties need only to cut carbon emissions by 60% and flats just 44% improved from the 2006 base year.

Instead developers would have been permitted to “offset” carbon emission reductions they considered to be unaffordable on building sites through a menu of “allowable solutions” elsewhere. This put a cash value on carbon emissions claimed to be too expensive to cut onsite.

This ingenious concept had been devised by the Zero Carbon Hub, a group of industry and sustainability experts appointed to advise the government from 2008. Until it shut up shop this March, acknowledging that its advice was now falling upon very deaf ears.

Because last autumn, without any consultation or even strategic leaking beforehand, the Government suddenly announced they were not going to proceed with any 2016 changes. At least in England. Legislators in both Wales and Scotland have retained their delivery timetables.

The official justification is that changes “could” –note the unconvincing conditional – “slow down or prevent the development of new homes”. No further evidence has been offered.

Prior to that, former Communities Secretary Sir Eric Pickles had proposed repealing his colleague Michael Fallon’s 2008 Act- a threat that, whilst yet to be formally confirmed, remains outstanding. And appears informally to be stopping almost all local authorities from implementing the Fallon Act.

Reneging on that 2016 zero carbon commitment has led to choruses of criticism. From the Committee on Climate Change. From the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change committee. From most of the construction industry, where long-agreed production and training changes have been thrown up in the air. From the CBI. From every environmental organisation.

Since May 2015, there has been a raft of decisions taken, the effect of which is to deter investment in sensible, cost-effective energy saving measures. Continuing to authorise the construction of less than efficient new buildings, each of which will eventually require expensive retrofitting, is probably the silliest of them all.

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