The importance of this year’s UK-hosted COP26 cannot be overstated. With uncertainty around how many more opportunities there will be to decide on the meaningful actions needed to avoid a global climate catastrophe, the stakes could hardly be higher.
While I’m hopeful world leaders now grasp the scale of the challenge, I fear the positive political rhetoric around climate change may not be matched by similar levels of real-world action.
In a world hit by a global pandemic and many conflicting demands, it’s all too tempting to whistle a positive tune while continuing to kick the climate can down the road. ‘Building back better’ is a nice slogan but can easily sound hollow if strategic climate goals are not at the heart of all policy planning.
No area needs more urgent attention than housing and heating which are widely acknowledged as two of the toughest decarbonisation policy challenges. Yet, at present, we still lack a coherent Heat and Buildings Strategy - it’s much-delayed arrival perhaps hinting at the complexities this area involves.
A balancing act
While effective low carbon policy has been delivered at an infrastructure level, measures to tackle emissions from homes have, so far, been relatively unsuccessful across both the new build and retrofit markets. This makes the new strategy, promised this summer, even more crucial. It needs to be high on ambition while reflecting the fiscal realities of the UK in the 2020s – no mean task.
Starting at the easier end, policy around new build should be straightforward. Mandating low carbon heating and high levels of insulation should really have happened years ago. As the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has persuasively shown, it’s far cheaper to build-in these features during construction than to do it later. The government just needs to be bold and make it happen.
When it comes to retrofitting existing homes, the challenges are more complex. The CCC may, with the best of intentions, have made a tactical error by giving the impression that for most households, the cost of reaching net zero will be low. The uncomfortable truth is that for some, the costs will be extremely high.
Policy experts tend to shrug their shoulders at this; homes need to be decarbonised so the money will just have to be found - by someone. It’s tough luck basically. But this political naivety betrays a failure to properly engage with the constraints many households face. It suggests that policy planners still mentally inhabit a pre-covid world where gaping holes in both public and personal finances do not exist.
While there’s been a lot of talk of a ‘green industrial revolution’, what we really need now is a state-funded transformation of our homes. One that dramatically cuts emissions and ends, for ever, the scourge of sub-standard, cold housing and associated fuel poverty that still blights so many lives in the UK. This would truly be a levelling up agenda worthy of the name.
The true cost
The problem is this is all likely to be extremely costly. While I’m in no position to objectively criticise the research that underpins the CCC’s recent Sixth Carbon Budget, the numbers relating to retrofit costs do not align with evidence from real retrofit projects or my own experience of upgrading older homes. Converting an old rural home on oil to a heat pump can easily cost upwards of £25,000 once the necessary improvements to insulation are also factored in.
In the absence of state funding (and the Treasury is said to be resistant to providing significant support for those deemed able to pay), the true cost involved could become a politically toxic issue for the Conservatives in many rural constituencies.
So, what to do? To be successful, the Heat and Buildings Strategy needs to aim high - but be driven by pragmatism. We need to cut our cloth according to our situation which means adopting greater flexibility and being open to a wider range of innovation. All options must now be on the table and the Energy White Paper suggests this is already part of the government’s thinking.
For older rural homes - a key early target for decarbonisation - these should include solutions such as biofuels which combine high emission cuts with easy conversion for existing oil and LPG households. Keeping costs down is far more likely to gain crucial public support.
We also need to empower the existing workforce to deliver the transition by supporting retraining and putting in place a delivery framework that allows small local businesses - the backbone of the sector - to contribute. This is rarely the case at present.
Well-resourced local authorities could also play a vital role, coordinating the grant-funded work of multiple trades. And a significant opportunity lies ahead for training providers to upskill workers to support the deployment of low carbon technologies. If heat pump are to work reliably in existing homes, far more attention must be given to system design and understanding the fabric of buildings.
To meet the scale of ambition needed, new entrants should also be encouraged into the building and heating sectors, enticed by modern apprenticeships that equip future workers with the skills needed to instil confidence of good outcomes among homeowners. This will be essential to guide households through the enormous changes that lie ahead for us all.