Phil Kelly, Director, Head of
Sustainability and Building Physics
at Ramboll UK tells Buildingspecifier
that more DOES need to be done
The prioritisation of green policies in the Government’s plans for an economic recovery had been widely anticipated in the run-up to the Chancellor’s ‘Summer Statement’ last week. For the buildings industry, there were indeed many welcome funding measures announced by Rishi Sunak in his strategy for economic recovery that put improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s existing building stock at the forefront of decarbonisation targets.
From a £3bn pledge to decarbonise housing and public buildings, to another £1bn allocated to make public buildings greener, it is hoped that the array of measures announced to help improve the energy efficiency of buildings will make a tangible difference towards zero-carbon targets. However, there are concerns that these seemingly far-reaching funding pledges do not go far enough in ensuring we do more than simply pay lip service to sustainability.
The devil is in the detail
While the buildings industry has for some time been working towards achieving net-zero carbon, a lot of the policies to help support this transition have, to date, been focused on carbon off-setting measures, rather than looking at the bigger decarbonisation picture. For instance, while the pledge of a £50m programme to retrofit social housing is welcome, there is little clarity over how the government will actually quantify the energy savings of retrofitting existing building stock, to ensure these measures have a truly tangible impact.
Other questions are still unanswered: the government have pledged to provide vouchers to households to help improve energy efficiency, but it is still unclear whether these incentives will prove to be more than simply tokenistic nods towards energy improvements, and what types of measures would fall under this support.
Providing financial incentives to undertake energy saving improvements is a good first step, but there should additionally be financial incentives to actually quantify the benefits if this is to be effective. One way to ensure we reap the most efficient savings could be, for instance, through tax savings on professional reports on recommendations for improvements. However, these financial measures must also be aligned and backed up by independent studies that explore the pros and cons of different methods of improving energy efficiency. Only by taking a holistic approach, that drills down to the quantifiable details, will we truly be able to make a dent in net-zero targets.
Is retrofitting the answer?
Retrofitting is, by far and away, undoubtedly an important way of working towards net-zero ambitions within the buildings industry, and the focus on retrofitting existing building stock to improve energy efficiency in Sunak’s green jobs announcement, is a vital step. Yet, what the focus on retrofitting fails to acknowledge, is that the compliance-driven market currently lacks adequate support to provide cost-effective ways of accurately quantifying the energy savings of the proposed interventions.
For example, carrying out energy performance certificates (EPCs) to the highest level of detail, and therefore accuracy, is currently hugely costly. They are intended only to facilitate benchmarking between similar buildings, not to forecast the energy performance of a building, however they are the most common metric in the UK for quantifying improvements. Therefore, it would be hugely beneficial for the government to fund cost-effective ways for the industry to be able to better quantify energy-saving improvements. This kind of targeted support would provide a much-needed kick-start of the generation of robust data to drive performance-driven energy saving decisions. Indeed, the performance gap between the compliance world and the real-world impact of energy efficiency methods is still an issue for the industry. What is clear, however, is that measuring energy savings cannot be shoe-horned into a one-size-fits-all strategy.
Going beyond paying lip service to decarbonisation targets
There are also concerns that many could seize upon the Chancellor’s funding for improving the energy efficiency of buildings as simply an opportunity to financially benefit from carrying out refurbishments. We urgently need to put measures in place to ensure that improvements labelled as ‘energy efficiency’ measures truly deliver on the promised environmental savings and avoid so-called greenwashing.
Retrofitting housing to decarbonise the UK’s existing housing stock is certainly an important first step, however, carbon neutrality will have to be the primary consideration for all new developments and projects going forwards. As this appetite for innovative, sustainable recovery increases, we must also provide clearer standards for the future of the buildings industry.
Above all, we must develop more tailored approaches towards energy efficiency, supported by targeted funding, if we are to urgently address the building industry’s role in tackling the climate crisis. The funding announced by the Chancellor cannot simply be a flash in the pan; it has to allow for long-term, quantifiable benefits for energy efficiency, if we are to meet zero-carbon goals.