Before the festive period got underway, the government set out its new NDC target, setting the pathway to net-zero for the UK by 2050.
A 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade, compared to 1990 levels, is no doubt ambitious. It sets the UK apart from other major economies, and this paired with Boris Johnson’s 10-Point Plan is a strong commitment.
But while it’s positive to see momentum building – and to see the UK helping to host December’s Climate Action Summit – to meet these ambitious targets we are going to have to get serious, quickly, about turning ambition into delivery. The Government must follow up with a detailed policy and implementation framework, which includes a coherent plan for every sector, including the built environment, where progress has undoubtably been too slow.
One of the biggest challenges to overcome is how to retrofit housing stock for net zero. According to the UK Green Building Council, 80% of buildings that will be around in 2050 already exist today. Retrofitting them for energy and carbon efficiency, as well as climate resilience, will be a mammoth task – one that will require a huge amount of collaboration, innovation and technological advances.
This will require a huge investment, but also a wholesale transformation of the construction sector. Just imagine how many disparate services are needed to refurbish a home right now – from electricals, through to plumbing, roofing or rendering. In order to achieve transformation at scale, the construction sector will need to provide net zero retrofits as a quick-fix integrated offering.
Transforming the UK’s residential building stock must also be recognised for the significant opportunity that it presents. The transformation will provide new, highly skilled jobs to people across the nation. According to the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget, the proposed programme to retrofit the UK’s buildings will require over 200,000 extra full-time workers in that sector from 2030 to 2050.
Even with the right innovation, skills and solutions, the question remains – how do we incentivise people to retrofit their homes? More finance needs to be made available through green mortgages, green loans and fiscal incentives. We must also consider the logistical challenge of how to retrofit a home without the disruption of the resident having to move out for the duration of the works.
As we work to retrofit our existing stock, we will continue to construct new homes. There are established plans in place that allow for over a million new UK homes to be built and it’s critical that these are built with net zero in mind. The Government can do a lot to incentivise a better effort in this area. Solutions could include tax incentives for sustainable construction, accreditation schemes for net-zero enabled buildings, or even a government-led offsetting fund where funds can be re-invested into retrofitting older properties, similar in intent to many of the local schemes that have been trialled over the last decade, but where performance seems patchy, at best.
Finally, we must also consider the challenge of residual gas demands. Even if homes are retrofitted or built to be net-zero ready, they will still have energy demands, and this energy will need to be renewable. We see positive advances from hydrogen home pilots, but when we look at the amount of new offshore wind capacity needed to generate enough green hydrogen to power hydrogen homes, it throws into focus how interconnected the UK’s net-zero challenge is. It also raises questions about scalability, priorities and phasing. We must also ensure that increased costs are not passed on to consumers.
The challenges I’ve outlined above are widely known in the construction sector, as are many of the solutions. What we need now is to come together – Government, the industry, and consumers – to agree a plan that we can get behind. Without a clear and coherent strategy for this and every other sector, meeting our new NDC target, as well as the Sixth Carbon Budget, will be difficult.
By Ben Smith, Energy, Cities and Climate Change Director at Arup
Source: New Civil Engineer