21 January 2021
Climate change – the role of the built environment

It’s 2021, and we’re another year closer to 2050 – the government’s legally binding deadline for achieving net zero carbon emissions. With the built environment accounting for an astonishing 40% of UK carbon emissions (half of which comes from energy use in buildings, such as heating), it’s clear that improving energy efficiency, both during the construction of new buildings and through the retrofitting of existing ones, will play a massive role in achieving this ambitious target.

What’s been done so far?

The government is working towards implementing more stringent standards for housebuilders in order to deliver future-proofed and energy efficient homes. For example, part L of the Second Schedule to Britain’s Building Regulations already sets standards for the energy performance of new and existing buildings. Going forwards, however, the government is looking to implement the Europe-wide Future Homes Standard, which will require all new homes constructed from 2025 to be equipped with low-carbon heating and other energy efficiency measures. These homes, the government says, will produce 75% to 80% less carbon than homes built to current standards.

According to the UK Green Buildings Council (UKGBC), however, 80% of the buildings that will be in use in 2050 have already been built, meaning that retrofitting existing buildings, including 29 million homes, is a huge part of the effort. This is more challenging than building energy efficient homes from scratch, as it involves a significant outlay on the part of home and property owners, as well as the inconvenience caused by building work. However, there are funding initiatives to assist homeowners in improving their properties, the most recent of which is the Green Homes Grant, which was unveiled in September 2020. It offers eligible homeowners vouchers worth between £5,000 and £10,000 to pay for improvements such as low-carbon heating systems. Meanwhile, landlords are now legally required to improve the energy efficiency of any property that falls below an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band of E.

Is it enough?

In a word, no. A recent report entitled Getting (retro)fit for net zero: An approach for existing homes, published by the Association for Decentralised Energy, has argued that while a multitude of ambitious targets exist, they are often poorly worded and defined, while the policies and measures introduced to achieve them have been sporadic and disjointed. Some were even withdrawn altogether, for example the Green Deal (a loan initiative aimed at encouraging consumers to make energy efficiency improvements to their homes), because take-up was so low.

However, things are starting to change. The government’s focus on green initiatives greatly increased during the coronavirus pandemic, culminating in the publication of the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, published in November 2020. The plan announced £12bn of government investment (and up to three times that amount in private investment) to support 250,000 ‘green jobs’, the development of renewable energy sources, the shift to zero carbon vehicles and, importantly, greener buildings. And, positively, a recent report from the UK Green Buildings Council (UKGBC) revealed that the cost of constructing an energy efficient office and residential building according to 2025 emissions targets would require a cost uplift of just 6.2% and 3.5%, respectively, which would likely be offset by increased rents, lower tenancy void periods, and lower operating/lifecycle costs.

The future is coming ever closer

During the coronavirus crisis, the construction industry underwent a rapid transformation with the widespread take-up of technology and digitisation. It has provided us a glimpse of what the industry is truly capable of. Now, to achieve the government’s ambitious net zero carbon targets, the industry must continue to open itself up to innovation and new ways of working, while the government must work to implement a more joined-up strategy that encourages homeowners to take part in the green revolution.