In Reverse Gear

Why the Government is Wrong to Backtrack on Zero Carbon Homes

Chris Evans, Ddeputy managing director of engineering consultancy Rolton Group discusses the implications of scrapping the Zero Carbon Buildings policy and the impact it will have on our housebuilders and the UK’s long-term emissions targets.

Earlier this year the government decided to scrap the Zero Carbon Buildings policy. The scheme – introduced by the Labour Government in 2006 – targeted all newly built homes to be carbon neutral by 2016. A lack of progress and clear prioritisation has led to the policy being abandoned by government officials – presumably to save themselves from the indignity of having failed to deliver on what was initially set out.

Halting the Zero Carbon Buildings policy in its tracks lays to waste all the work that engineers, architects and housebuilders have undertaken to ready themselves for the 2016 carbon neutral housing boom. More worryingly, it is also a monumental blow for the UK’s chances of achieving 80% reduction in carbon emissions from building stock by 2050 - which is stipulated in the legally binding Climate Change Act 2008. If there isn’t a sufficient replacement this target will quite simply be beyond our reach, because we will be building lower standard homes that will only increase carbon emissions while doing nothing to curb or offset them.

Why has the government performed this U-turn?

The Zero Carbon Buildings policy was introduced with the long-term in mind: to ensure a reduction in carbon emissions, promote the use of renewable energy, and lower our dependence on centralised, “dirty” energy.

There has been a significant squeeze in the demand for housing in recent years, with a growing population coupled with the rise of single occupancies and growing life expectancy. Ensuring that everybody has a home has put pressure on the government to build more houses quickly and cheaply – which on the surface is far easier to do without the “green tape” that comes with upholding the highest environmental standards and the time it takes to achieve. It is also arguably more costly to invest in new technology to keep up with standards. Instead, perhaps unsurprisingly, policymakers have decided to pursue cheaper housing that can be built hastily to get a roof over more heads.

Chancellor George Osborne once described the building of carbon neutral homes as impossible, but this summer has seen completion of the UK’s first “energy positive” house near Bridgend in Wales – which will produce more energy than it consumes. In dispute of popular criticisms of expenditure and time, the house cost just £125,000 to build, working out at £1,000 per square metre. This lies inside the range for the average cost of social housing.

That cost figure only takes into account the expenditure involved to actually build, but when we look at how much it costs to live in a house, including energy bills, the new house is a far cheaper option. Using full insulation, and heated using heat recovery ventilation systems throughout the house with wall-mounted electric panel heaters, the building can drastically cut energy bills and even generate necessary reserves for its owners that can be sold on to third parties.

The house also took just 16 weeks to build – the current average minimum lead time for house building across the country. Putting such projects out at scale would, in all likelihood, decrease this time further, and as new building technology became standard the timescale of rolling out regional developments of zero carbon housing would be drastically cut.

The biggest challenge of whether this is feasible on a wider scale though remains to be seen. There is certainly still a long path to tread for this to become mainstream, but the construction of this first zero carbon house gives hope for similar other future projects. A blueprint has been created and the government needs to open its eyes to what can be achieved. It is high time policymakers started to look at what a house costs to live in and not what it cost to build.

While there is a need to build homes quickly and affordably, the flagship carbon-positive house in Wales shows that it is possible without compromising on energy efficiency of the construction. It seems that environment policymakers are trying to save their short-term reputations rather than create a long-lasting legacy, and there needs to be a much higher commitment to driving reductions in carbon emissions before we suffer further by failing to meet our Climate Change Act targets.

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