There has been a very mixed sense of urgency and hope, but also despair and denial surrounding climate change for many years. The strength of evidence for man-made climate change was clear to most scientists back in the 1990s, but took its time to be fully accepted by the global community at the Paris Agreement in 2015.
But the Paris target to limit global temperature rise to 2°C (or 1.5°C if possible) – and the EU’s older target to limit carbon dioxide emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 – still feel as if they are goals for the distant future. As a result, there seems to be little urgency to take significant action yet. It has been a help to see the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, and the 25-year Environment Plan, but more specific direction within the housing sector still needs to be properly nailed down.
It is also likely that sectors such as housing will need to do more than their fair share to reduce emissions, because it will be harder for other sectors such as aviation and shipping to reduce their carbon emissions to the required levels.
CO2 emissions in the UK are now 38% lower than 1990 – but we aren’t quite on track to meet the 2050 target yet. Use of coal is down and renewables are up, but there is still a great reliance on gas, both for heating and for electricity generation. The Government has expressed a wish to start phasing out gas, but beyond some rumblings about building a hydrogen economy, there are not yet any clear strategies or timescales for this.
Also, with no fewer than seventeen housing ministers since 2000, many of the initial steps forward (for example Code for Sustainable Homes, zero-carbon homes) have been stepped back again by ministers with different priorities or understanding of the sector. The Green Deal didn’t only spectacularly fail – it also wasted years in finding any real ways to cope with the immense numbers of deep retrofits needed to raise the quality of the housing stock. The Renewable Heat Incentive was initially well-conceived, but by the time it was implemented it had been watered down so much that it never fired much interest.
Building Regulations now require nearly all new homes to reach an EPC rating of B (SAP 81-90). However to achieve the 2050 carbon target, ALL homes – new and existing – need to be at an average of SAP 86 by then. Landlords are being left on their own to both build enough homes to lift us out of the housing crisis, and to make them sustainable enough to address the challenges of a changing climate.
Sustainable Homes’ latest research is looking specifically into the actions required by housing providers to prepare for a low-carbon economy and changing climate by 2050. ‘Housing 2050: A roadmap for low carbon action’ will gauge current levels of environmental commitment. Furthermore it will include a road map with recommended steps to take over the next three decades, to achieve necessary emission reductions and to ensure that homes are futureproofed against increasingly extreme weather conditions.
It was announced this month that 2018 was the joint hottest summer on record in the UK. At the time of writing, figures are not yet available for the full health impacts of the heat wave, but we know that hospital admissions were significantly higher than normal. Some climate scientists predict that this is the ‘new normal’ for the UK, but the overheating risk for the nation’s housing stock remains largely unassessed. Will this mean that residents suffer in the heat, or trigger in a surge in summer energy use because of air conditioning? Possibly a bit of both, though by assessing and mitigating overheating risk, landlords can limit these negative impacts.
Climate challenges and the housing crisis have to be tackled simultaneously. Can we wait for firm policy direction from Government, while Brexit dominates political debate? How can we address energy efficiency, climate resilience, energy decarbonisation, and emerging technologies including electric vehicles and home battery storage? Can RSLs set out their long term strategies for these, in advance of Government support or legislation?
Sustainable Homes’ research is being conducted between June and September 2018, through a combination of surveys, roundtables, interviews, economic modelling and secondary research. It is identifying where the housing sector needs to be by 2050 in terms of sustainability, and aims to provide a roadmap with actions for housing providers to take in stages over the next 32 years. Your input will be welcomed: please complete the 10-minute survey here.