How seriously do we take climate change in the UK and how important is it that we achieve net zero carbon by 2050?

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net zero 2050 fabric first

Although there is no detailed evidence as to how people would answer these questions, it is generally assumed that the majority would reply ’very’ and ‘essential’ if asked to respond.

And yet despite a continual narrative regarding these issues across almost every aspect of life in the UK, from politics to media, industry, commerce, education and recreation, we are worryingly far away from implementing the necessary improvements to the built environment, without which we have little hope of meeting net zero carbon.

Housing accounts for 15-20% of emissions and other buildings another 25%, meaning nearly half of our emissions come from buildings.  Therefore, without vastly improving the energy performance of our built environment, net zero carbon cannot be achieved.

It is generally understood that the greenest energy of all, is the energy we don’t use.  So, in terms of reducing carbon emissions, we must either use less, or completely decarbonise the grid, both of which present complex and expensive challenges.

Whilst there has been considerable growth in renewable energy generation in recent years, nuclear, solar and wind generation only accounts for a relatively small percentage of total provision for the UK and under current plans will not meet energy demands within any realistic short-term timeframe.  Therefore, our emphasis must be concentrated on reducing usage by improving the thermal performance of buildings. 

With around 29 million existing homes in the UK, the vast majority of which will need at least some remediation, the task ahead of us is extremely daunting, especially as most recent initiatives and attempts have ended in relative failure, further undermining confidence in future schemes.

For example, in September 2020, the UK Government introduced its flagship building energy improvement policy, the Green Homes Grant. This scheme had the potential to drive significant demand for PIR and spray foam insulation, but it was unceremoniously abandoned in March 2021 after falling far short of its targets. The National Audit Office, described it as an ‘overly complex scheme that could not be delivered to a satisfactory level of performance in the time available’. Many of the criticisms had been identified to government by industry bodies and proposals for essential preparatory work outlined.  As these suggestions were ignored it came as little surprise that the project floundered.  Unfortunately, every time schemes such as this fail, confidence is undermined and the potential for future success is set back.

The Energy Company Obligation (ECO3) has been successful for those in fuel poverty, but its target is limited and there is now considerable concern that the next iteration of this scheme (ECO4) is increasingly uncertain.   Without a timely introduction of a Green Homes Grant programme or similar long term retrofit strategy, meeting the 2050 target of net-zero carbon will be severely undermined. 

Even though the UK is currently facing a cost-of-living crisis, including significant increases in energy costs, the expected outlay for energy efficiency remediation to achieve net zero carbon will, for some homes, be in the region of £20-30,000 per household (and in some cases much more).  It is difficult to see what will motivate homeowners and landlords to spend these sums of money on something they do not really understand and when on average, people move house relatively frequently and may not see a return on this investment.

Although the immediate focus needs to shift from high-tech solutions like air-source heat pumps, to ensuring that buildings are first properly ventilated, insulated and damp free, without attractive incentives or means of funding, it is difficult to see the improvements happening on the scale needed.

Whilst large owners such as housing associations and local authorities can retrofit insulation more cost effectively, the real challenge lies with owner occupiers and landlords in the private rental sector.  Unless and until we have a successful financial model to support a widespread retrofit scheme across all sectors, the work required will not happen.

As for new build, we have to ensure that all new houses meet increasingly high energy standards which means a much tougher compliance and inspection regime. We cannot afford to add to the problem that already exists by building homes today that will need to be retrofitted in the future. 

There is no doubt the UK is becoming a tougher place to make and sell products and although materials prices across many construction products are high, the market is very keen to buy more PIR insulation in response to the essential fabric first approach to energy efficiency

Whilst there are concerns about a skills shortage in construction and availability of some construction products, IMA manufacturers are very busy and demand is high. 

With new manufacturing plants in our sector coming on stream later this year,  manufacturing capacity in the UK looks good despite some obstacles to overcome before we can get close to producing at capacity.

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