No More Zero Carbon

The UK, with the Climate Change Act 2008, set the legally binding target to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to the 1990 levels.

The building sector is viewed internationally as the low hanging fruit for reducing carbon emissions. Buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of the country’s emissions, with more than 25% attributed to houses. On a worldwide level, numerous countries are implementing policies and financial incentives in order to promote energy efficiency in the building sector, both domestic and non-domestic.

As part of this strategy, in 2006, the UK committed to implement a zero carbon policy for new buildings: it was anticipated that the implementation would start in 2016 for houses and in 2019 for non-domestic buildings. The ten year period between this early announcement and the actual enforcement of the scheme was expected to allow for technical improvements and for the influenced industries to adjust to the new legislative requirements and the higher associated performance standards.

The domestic zero carbon target meant that a house would, through renewable sources, generate energy, of equal amount to the energy consumed for space and water heating, lighting and ventilation. The proposed method to achieve this target for domestic buildings, involved energy saving measures and increased energy efficiency, as well as the production of renewable energy on and off-site. This target was also in agreement with the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), a European Policy requiring all buildings to be nearly Zero Energy Buildings (nZEB) by 2020.

Similarly, the EPBD definition of nZEB refers to‘a building that has a very high energy performance and whose nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered to a very significant extent by energy from renewable sources, including energy from renewable sources produced on-site or nearby’.

In July 2015, the UK Treasury announced that zero carbon targets for houses are called off, although energy efficiency remains under review. This decision was made due to the high demand for housing and as part of the attempt to ‘improve the planning process – ensuring planning decisions are made on time’. However, the potential consequences of this change are significant and involve several aspects, discussed in the following paragraphs.

The influence on the construction industry

The zero carbon target was associated with high energy performance requirements and it was a challenge for the industry. Nevertheless, this change of plans comes at a point where groundworks had potentially taken place in several sectors aiming to achieve the targets. On hearing the news, the ways in which the industry reacts vary. There are those who saw zero carbon as a step forward and a business opportunity. For example, the timber sector, expected to grow due to their potential contribution to reduce embodied emissions and consequently to the zero carbon target.

On the other hand, there are those, especially small and medium-sized house building companies who welcomed the late change of plans. Those companies were concerned by the cost increase associated with achieving higher performance and feared that this would burden their own business, rather than house buyers. It is still early days and time will show how this change actually influences different professionals and companies within the construction industry.

The influence on building occupants’ health and wellbeing

The UK building stock is among the oldest ones in Europe. The cancellation of zero carbon aims to encourage speed but at the moment slows down the potential for considerable improvement of the UK building stock, as buildings’ high energy performance was the first step towards achieving zero carbon. As a report by the Public Health England highlights, there is a direct link between poor health and cold homes; cold, damp places are, among other factors, responsible for health problems in the UK. Therefore, abandoning zero carbon has not only a direct financial effect, but also potential and long-term health implications. The expectation for improved indoor air quality, comfort and the elimination of dampness from new buildings might have to be postponed until further notice.

The influence on the UK targets for CO2 emissions

Going back to the purely environmental aspect, scrapping zero carbon has a direct impact on the UK targets for CO2 emissions’ reduction. The 2005 Report on Housing Construction by the Environmental Audit Committee stated that ‘unless significant measures are put in place to reduce emissions from the housing sector … they could constitute over 55% of the UK’s target for carbon emissions in 2050’. The Department of Energy and Climate Change 2050 Pathways Calculator estimated carbon emissions’ reduction by 10% assuming, at its best case scenario, that the thermal leakiness of buildings could decrease by 50%, while the energy demand for lighting and appliances could be reduced by 60%. The question remains: how does scrapping zero carbon affect all these estimates and what happens next?

The efforts for improvement by a significant percentage of the industry during the past 10 years should not be wasted; in the same way that the expectation to improve our indoor environment and the places we live and work in should not be forgotten. The CO2 emissions reduction target remains high and it is still everyone’s best interest to achieve it.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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