Our current campaign – to accelerate the transition to cleaner and warmer homes and workplaces
Buildings are one of the biggest obstacles to decarbonising the UK. With 85% of all homes connected to the gas grid and some 30 million buildings in the UK, there are massive challenges to switching heat supply, which slows down the speed at which the UK can reach net zero emissions. Worse, government policy has been lagging behind this sector more than other areas. We want to turn this around. A decarbonised heating system will either have to switch to electric heating, hydrogen gas, or some combination of the two, which requires longer term testing and decisions to be made over the next five years. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t actions that can’t be taken now. Our campaign is proposing three actions that can get the UK’s homes, offices and other buildings ready for a climate compatible future.
Firstly, we need to reduce the need for heating demand by implementing an ambitious retrofit programme. Investment in retrofit has plummeted, and as well as reducing many other social issues such as fuel poverty, it means we can reduce gas use immediately, before new heating technologies are introduced.
Secondly, we want to accelerate the government’s existing plans for new build homes from 2025, making sure that these buildings have strict standards on energy efficiency and low carbon heating. It is beyond time for the UK to be building more efficient buildings, and it makes no sense to have to retrofit later homes we are building today.
Thirdly, we want a trial run of some low carbon heating systems such as heat pumps in the 15% of homes that are off the gas grid, and for the government to provide support for these homes to upgrade their heating systems.
Buildings were responsible for 88 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, at 18% of the UK’s total. Unlike other sectors, such as power and surface transport, where rapid uptake of renewables and electric vehicles make rapid transformations possible over the next decade, decarbonising buildings is going to take longer and is a larger challenge. The Committee on Climate Change estimate that retrofits can deliver 12 million tonnes of reduction per annum, and with new retrofit technologies such as the Energiesprong approach emerging, this reduction could increase. Off gas grid homes are responsible for 8 million tonnes of emissions, so these also offer a potential cut in current building emissions. A reduction in gas demand across the UK has the additional environmental benefit of reducing imported emissions, the environmental issues with gas flaring and infrastructure in the North Sea, and annulling demand for unconventional extraction methods such as fracking. This also increases the UK’s energy security by reducing imports.
Fuel poverty continues to be a major concern in our society, and 5,000 people die from cold related illnesses every winter. It is morally unacceptable for those in poverty to sacrifice their health due to inability to pay for heating. More efficient homes can make those in low income households more independent, and allow them greater autonomy over their lives. Upgrading social housing should be a particular area for energy efficiency upgrades, in a collaborative and respectful way to the inhabitants. The knock on effects of cold related illnesses spreads to the NHS, with additional cold related illnesses every winter, costing the NHS £1360 million. Not only will reducing fuel poverty increase health, it will ease health costs for other cases and areas.
The current home retrofit industry currently employs 100,000 people and is worth £14 billion. With an increase in the number of retrofits, this could double over the decade. A home infrastructure construction boom could also lead to a rise in economic growth of the 2020s, as millions of homes have retrofit measures added and with reducing heating bills consumers have greater spending power. When adding social co-benefits such as increased health and social mobility, the economic benefits of retrofits and low carbon heating increases further. Investing in off gas grid homes can also bring rarer investment into rural areas, stimulating jobs in these parts of the country. Decarbonising buildings is going to be a big challenge, and the measures outlined above only partly do so – but they allow an earlier start and reduce problems at later stages.