What the government’s carbon plan should mean for the built environment

Newly built homesThis post is by Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Buildings Council (UK-GBC).

Buildings are responsible for around a third of our greenhouse gas emissions, and have by far the most potential for achieving cost effective greenhouse gas reductions compared to other sectors.

So you might ask why progress on improving the energy efficiency of buildings has been allowed to stall in recent years, and take up of low carbon heat has been minimal. UK policies, as they currently stand, will lead to emissions from the built environment 18 per cent above the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations for 2030.

The government’s emissions reduction plan, or ‘carbon plan’ is due out in spring 2017. It is the opportunity to address the problem and what it says will be crucial to build confidence among businesses in the property and construction sectors that need to plan and invest in the medium term transition to a low carbon built environment.

The good news is that there are significant economic opportunities, not least in terms of reducing household energy bills and improving health, thereby reducing NHS costs and creating jobs. According to Cambridge Econometrics, fully exploiting the potential market in home energy efficiency alone could create more than 108,000 jobs in the service and construction sectors, with employment spread across all regions of the UK.

Sector targets are needed
The government’s commitment to international co-operation on ambitious decarbonisation was confirmed by its ratification of the Paris agreement last Thursday, and the Climate Change Act 2008 enshrines into UK law the need to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. The fifth carbon budget’s interim target is 57 per cent by 2032.

These targets are helpful in setting the overarching level of ambition. But what is needed from the government’s industrial strategy and carbon plan are targets for the built environment alongside the carbon budgets. Sector specific targets should set milestones for both new and existing buildings.

As the public sector represents 41 per cent of direct emissions from the commercial buildings sector, the government itself should commit to ambitious sustainability standards across its own asset portfolio.  A good start would be emissions reduction targets for public buildings and a renewal of its greening government commitments for 2020 and beyond. Public procurement would drive higher standards in the commercial property market and in new local authority housing.

Energy efficiency should be a national infrastructure priority
Energy efficiency should be recognised as a national infrastructure priority and long term targets set for improving all existing homes, with backstop dates for minimum EPC standards across different housing tenure types. The same principle applies to existing commercial buildings, which should all be subject to a tightening trajectory of minimum energy efficiency standards. This would not only give industry confidence to invest, but it should also encourage cross-departmental government support and provide access to new investment streams.

In advance of the first Buildings Day at COP21, UK-GBC joined forces with World Green Building Council to call for all new buildings to be ‘net zero carbon’ well in advance of 2030. The removal of the UK’s Zero Carbon policy for new homes and commercial buildings in 2015 was a huge blow for the industry, which had spent over ten years gearing up to deliver the standard. Only last week the Environmental Audit Committee published Sustainability and HM Treasury, criticising the Treasury for “riding roughshod” over other departments’ objectives and favouring short term priorities over long term sustainability. The committee calls for the reinstatement of the Zero Carbon homes policy, a call echoed by us at UK-GBC and several of our members.

As well as tightening building regulations, there needs to be greater focus on both embodied carbon and the ultimate performance of buildings in-use. Indeed, as there is a significant performance gap (design vs actual energy use) in commercial buildings, we advocate mandatory operational energy ratings, to improve transparency and accountability.

A simple way to improve life for those ‘just about managing’
Energy efficient and low carbon buildings are a cost effective solution to reducing emissions, but they also provide economic, health and social benefits for the people using them. Reducing energy demand is a simple way to improve the financial outlook and quality of life of many of those UK households that are struggling to make ends meet: a social priority right at the top of the government’s agenda. Sustainable buildings also enhance the productivity of those that occupy them: an economic priority at the heart of Theresa May’s speech to the CBI yesterday.

If this government is serious about these socioeconomic priorities, it will take the opportunity to ensure that real estate and construction play their part in meeting both people and planet objectives in tomorrow’s autumn statement, as well as in the accompanying industrial strategy green paper and the upcoming carbon plan.

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