It’s a do or die moment
All the main parties are putting forward energy efficiency measures in some form. In our latest general election blog, CIH's John Perry and Orbit's Christoph Sinn look at how the sector responds and whether it can frame an ambitious yet realistic programme and do its part in tackling the climate emergency.
Time’s running out. We’re past the stage where we can debate whether climate change is real or not, and if it is, how badly we’ll be affected. We all know it’s happening now and it’s happening fast, and unless we make radical changes to how our societies are run in the next few years, we’re (literally) sunk. Yes, it’s true that the UK is only part of the problem – we’re in the top twenty countries for carbon emissions, but big ones like the United States and China produce far more than we do. But measure the pollution we produce by head of population and we’re right up there with China. What’s worse is that our figure is artificially low, because of the world’s big seven economies we’re the one most guilty of ‘importing’ carbon emissions by buying goods produced elsewhere.
What’s this got to do with housing? Plenty. In our homes we produce almost 15% of the country’s carbon emissions by using gas and oil for heating, and electricity use in buildings makes up another 15%. Use of renewables, especially wind power, to produce electricity is progressing quickly. But emissions from homes are increasing instead of falling. The main reason for this is that they are leaking energy because they are poorly insulated. For many low-income households, this also means they suffer fuel poverty (paying excessive amounts for their heating). Government-funded insulation schemes have fallen to the point where they tackle fewer than 200,000 homes per year, while the target should be more than five times this amount. Four years ago the government also scrapped its own goal of ensuing all new homes are built to ‘zero carbon’ standards. Now we need urgently to reintroduce it. In the mid-2020s, we need to start phasing out gas boilers for central heating: new systems will need major investment that is not yet taking place.
If much of this depends on government policy and needs new government spending, what can housing bodies do in the meantime? They don’t need to wait for government before putting their own house(s) in order. The goals are simply stated but they need to be built into business plans and budgets. No new homes should be built that aren’t as close to zero carbon as possible. The Energy Saving Trust calculates that this adds less than 3% to building costs. The recent Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street development commissioned by Norwich City Council has thrown down the gauntlet, showing us what ‘the new normal’ can look like.
Every landlord should also have a plan to get their existing homes up to high energy-efficiency standards by 2030 – as a minimum, they should achieve an Energy Performance Certificate of no lower than ‘Band C’. At the moment, nearly one-third of social sector homes fail the standard. So far more than three-quarters of Orbit’s stock has reached EPC Band C or above. Continued investment in this area means that each week 21 more families are benefitting from reduced heating bills and warmer homes alongside reduced carbon emissions.
And housing organisations should be looking inwards at their own operations and buildings. Are your offices highly energy-efficient? Are you maximising use of public transport and moving your vehicle fleet over to electrics? Do you carry out an annual green audit and involve staff in reducing your carbon footprint?
Although climate change features prominently in the current election campaign, any new government must be seriously committed to the major transformation that is required over the next decade or so. Since the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008, we’ve spent ten years talking about the problem, witnessed the growing desperation of young and old climate activists in Extinction Rebellion, and have been inspired by people like Greta Thunberg. But so far we’ve barely met the climate targets that were set then, and mostly we’ve done so by taking easy options like closing coal-fired power stations. The real conversation about the radical changes now needed has barely begun.
Yet for the first time, if the next government takes the environmental challenge seriously it will have the public behind it. A YouGov poll has just found that 56% support an ambitious target of making the UK ‘zero carbon’ by 2030, far more than the 16% who support only the current aim of getting there by 2050. Let’s not underplay the enormity of achieving a zero-carbon economy in a decade. But if most of us want to achieve it, why can’t it be done?
John Perry is CIH policy adviser and Christoph Sinn is external affairs manager at Orbit. CIH is starting a joint project with Orbit, looking at what housing organisations can do to help achieve a zero-carbon economy.