Coping with climate change

Originally published on February 21 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

Remember when England was going to lead the world on zero carbon homes?

Three years after that was meant to happen, a report published today (Thursday) by the government’s independent advisor on climate change reveals that instead we are going backwards.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warns that ‘UK homes are not fit for the future’, with progress stalled on reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to adapt the housing stock falling far behind the risks posed by higher temperatures, flooding and water scarcity.

Improving the quality, design and use of homes will not just address the challenges of climate change, it says, but save people money and improve health and wellbeing, especially for vulnerable groups like the elderly.

Many of today’s headlines were generated by its recommendations that would mean no more gas boilers and hobs, with no new homes connected to the gas grid from 2025 .

However, the report as a whole has multiple and far-reaching implications for new and existing homes if the UK is to meet its legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

We have of course been here before and the CCC itself is the product of the government-led drive to tackle climate change in the 2000s that set the target of making all new homes zero carbon by 2016.

That was before industry lobbying and Conservative suspicion of ‘green crap’ succeeded in  watering down the targets and regulations and scrapping zero carbon homes and the Code for Sustainable Homes.

The CCC report avoids political comment but it’s not hard to detect what may lie behind the fact that just 1% of new homes were built to the highest energy efficiency standard in 2018, or lack of progress in reducing energy use since 2014.

Take-up of energy efficiency measures in existing homes is stalling and installation of loft and wall insulation has fallen to just 5% of the levels seen in 2012.

But the problems are about much more than just politics and there is a sense of the same systemic issues with the building regulations that Dame Judith Hackitt identified in relation to fire safety.

‘The way new homes are built and existing homes retrofitted often falls short of design standards,’ says the report. ‘This is unacceptable.

It calls for more inspection and stricter enforcement of the building regulations to tackle the performance gap between homes as designed and homes as built.

That means improvements in energy efficiency are (literally) being lost in hot air escaping from shoddily built new homes and it could be costing households up to £260 a year on their energy bills.

It’s worth remembering that energy efficiency requirements were one of the factors that drove the boom in cladding of social housing blocks, with materials we now know were combustible the cheapest option.

But this report identifies another overlap with fire safety as it calls for an increase in timber frame construction to displace high-carbon materials like steel and concrete in new housing.

It warns that:

‘There is a risk that the Government’s intended ban on combustible materials will affect the uptake of wood in construction (both engineered wood and timber frame homes), with some anecdotal evidence that this is taking place. Clarity from Government on the role and fire safety of wood in construction is needed.’

And it calls for urgent action on the review of the building regulations expected this year to address flaws in the methodology used to measure energy efficiency and also tackle water efficiency, ventilation and overheating risks in new-build homes.

The report says social landlords can be well-placed to oversee climate change mitigation and adaptation action and praises initiatives by Nottingham City Council in retrofitting 200 existing homes to the Energiespong standard and Pobl Group to build new ‘homes as power stations’.

However, before anyone gets complacent, it cites upcoming research showing that: ‘UK social housing is not it for 2050. Long-term strategies do not exist to make homes ready for 2050, despite it being within reach of most landlord financial planning cycles’.

Looking to that longer term across housing in general, the CCC makes a pretty clear case that failing to tighten up the requirements for new homes now will mean spending far more on retrofitting them later.

And that means thinking now about the 300,000 new homes a year that are planned by 2022. As Baroness Brown, chair of the CCC’s adapation subcommittee, puts it:

‘We shouldn’t be allowing 300,000 substandard homes that will need upgrading to be built, they should be built to the right standard now.’

Alongside that performance gap in new homes, the report identifies skills gaps in the construction industry and policy gaps at national level.

Loopholes mean that homes built now only have to meet the requirements in place when they got planning permission and permitted development means that homes converted from offices and industrial units do not have to meet the building regulations requirements.

However, radical action will be needed on existing homes too, with the report concluding that ‘we will not meet our requirements for emissions reduction without near complete decarbonisation of the housing stock’.

Energy use in homes accounts for 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions and needs to fall by at least 24% by 2030 from 1990 levels – but in 2017 emissions actually roseby 1%.

The CCC says action is required on everything from insulation to double and triple glazing and shading, heating to draught proofing and appliances and green space to flood resilience:

‘Rather than piecemeal incremental change, long-term investments that treat homes as a system are needed, focussing on improvements at key trigger points such as moving home and renovating.’

That will mean backing from the Treasury but also compulsion on home owners that will set the political alarm bells ringing in Downing Street but momentum is building behind the idea of a ‘green new deal’ on both sides of the Atlantic.

The climate change agenda once seemed set to be a dominant force in housing policy before it was watered down under austerity and a government that saw it as so much red tape.

This report, with far more detail than I’ve been able to go into here, is a sharp reminder that the issues have only got more acute in the meantime.

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