UK homes are ‘unfit for the challenges of climate change’

The UK’s legally-binding climate change targets will not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from UK buildings, according to a new and hard hitting report: UK housing: Fit for the future? from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). 

The report finds that emissions reductions from the UK’s 29mn homes have stalled, while energy use in homes – which accounts for 14% of total UK emissions – increased between 2016 and 2017. 

Among the priorities for government action to remedy the situation, the CCC suggests that new homes built from 2025 should not be connected to the gas grid, instead relying on alternative low carbon heat sources and ‘ultra-high’ levels of energy efficiency.

Efforts to adapt the UK’s housing stock to the impacts of the changing climate are also lagging behind, says the report. Around 4.5mn homes overheat, even in cool summers; while 1.8mn people live in areas at risk of flooding. Cost-effective measures to adapt the UK housing stock are not being rolled out at anywhere near the required level.

The Committee says that technology and knowledge to create high quality, low carbon and resilient homes exists, but current policies and standards are failing to drive either the scale or the pace of change needed. Home insulation installations have stalled; key policies such as the zero carbon homes scheme have been weakened or withdrawn; while UK building standards are inadequate, overly complex and not enforced.

The report identifies five priorities for government action:
• Performance and compliance – the way new homes are built and existing homes retrofitted often falls short of stated design standards. Closing the ‘performance gap’ could save households in new homes between £70 and £260 in energy bills each year. Widespread inspection and enforcement of building standards is needed, with stiffer penalties for non-compliance.
• Skills gap – the chopping and changing of government policy has led to a skills gap in housing design, construction and in the installation of new technologies. The government should launch a nationwide training programme and use initiatives under the Industrial Strategy’s Construction Sector Deal to plug this gap.
• Retrofitting existing homes – ensuring existing homes are low carbon and resilient to the changing climate is a major UK infrastructure priority, and must be supported by the Treasury. 
• Building new homes – new homes should be built to be low carbon, energy and water efficient, and climate resilient. From 2025 at the latest, no new homes should be connected to the gas grid; they should be heated using low carbon energy sources, have ultra-high levels of energy efficiency alongside appropriate ventilation, and be timber-framed where possible. 
• Finance and funding – there are urgent funding gaps which must be addressed, including secure government funding for low carbon sources of heating beyond 2021, better resources for local authorities – particularly building control departments – and support for ‘green mortgages’ with preferential rates for owners of low carbon homes.

Reaction to the report from the low carbon heating sector was understandably positive, while the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) called for early action on standards. 

Director of Policy and Places at UKGBC John Alker said: ‘We must start by not making the problem worse, which is why UKGBC is calling for an urgent step-change in the energy performance of our homes, and all new buildings to be net zero carbon by 2030. This year will see the long-awaited review of Building Regulations and the publication of a government action plan for home energy efficiency. These are both key opportunities to respond to the climate challenge with robust regulations and targeted investment.’

The suggestion on the future of gas central heating was more controversial. 

Gas industry institution IGEM’s Head of Technical Services and Policy Ian McCluskey said: ‘We do not agree with the recommendation that no new houses built after 2025 should be connected to the gas grid and we would urge the government not to rule out any options lest it impact on the long-term feasibility of a no regrets solution to the decarbonisation of heat. The existence of the gas grid does not preclude other solutions for decarbonisation. Hydrogen can play a valuable role as part of the heating solution for UK buildings, in combination with hybrid heat system solutions and more energy efficient homes.’

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