Reverse Gear – Why the Government is Wrong to Backtrack on Zero Carbon Homes

Chris Evans, deputy managing director of engineering consultancy Rolton Group, discusses the consequences of repealing the Zero Carbon Buildings policy, including the impact on our housebuilders and the UK’s long-term emissions targets.

The government announced earlier this year that the Zero Carbon Buildings policy would be phased out. The Labour government launched the scheme in 2006 with the goal of making all newly built homes carbon neutral by 2016. A lack of progress and clear prioritisation has led to government officials abandoning the policy, presumably to avoid the embarrassment of failing to deliver on what was initially promised.

Stopping the Zero Carbon Buildings policy wastes all of the work done by engineers, architects, and homebuilders to prepare for the 2016 carbon neutral housing boom. Worryingly, it represents a significant setback for the UK’s chances of meeting the legally binding Climate Change Act 2008 target of reducing carbon emissions from building stock by 80% by 2050. If a sufficient replacement is not available, we will simply be unable to meet this target because we will be building lower-quality homes, which will increase carbon emissions while doing nothing to reduce or offset them.

Why has the government made such a U-turn?

The Zero Carbon Buildings policy was designed to reduce carbon emissions, encourage the use of renewable energy, and reduce our reliance on centralised, “dirty” energy.

With a growing population, rising single-occupancy rates, and rising life expectancy, housing demand has been significantly squeezed in recent years. Making sure that everyone has a place to live has put pressure on the government to build more houses quickly and cheaply – something that appears to be far easier to do without the “green tape” that comes with maintaining the highest environmental standards and the time it takes to achieve. It is also argued that investing in new technology to meet standards is more expensive. Instead, perhaps unsurprisingly, policymakers have chosen to focus on low-cost housing that can be built quickly in order to provide a roof over more people’s heads.

Chancellor George Osborne once claimed that building carbon-neutral homes was impossible, but this summer saw the completion of the UK’s first “energy positive” house near Bridgend in Wales – a house that produces more energy than it consumes. Contrary to popular perceptions of cost and timeliness, the house was built for only £125,000, or £1,000 per square metre. This is in line with the national average for the cost of social housing.

When we consider how much it costs to live in a house, including energy bills, the new house is a much cheaper option. Using full insulation and heat recovery ventilation systems throughout the house, along with wall-mounted electric panel heaters, the building can drastically reduce energy bills while also generating necessary reserves for its owners to sell to third parties.

In addition, the house was completed in 16 weeks, which is the current national minimum lead time for house construction. Scaling up such projects would almost certainly shorten this time even further, and as new building technology became more common, the timeframe for rolling out regional developments of zero carbon housing would be drastically reduced.

The most difficult task will be determining whether this is feasible on a larger scale. There is still a long way to go before this becomes commonplace, but the construction of the first zero-carbon house provides hope for future projects of this type. A blueprint has been created, and the government must now assess what is feasible. It’s past time for policymakers to think about how much it costs to live in a house rather than how much it costs to build one.

While there is a need for homes to be built quickly and affordably, Wales’ flagship carbon-positive house demonstrates that it is possible without sacrificing energy efficiency. Environmental policymakers appear to be more concerned with preserving their short-term reputations than with leaving a lasting legacy, and there needs to be a much stronger commitment to driving carbon emission reductions before we suffer even more by failing to meet our Climate Change Act targets.

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Last Updated on December 29, 2021


Author: Indra Gupta

Indra is an in-house writer with a love of Newcastle United and all things sustainable.

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