The Role of Buildings in a Net Zero UK

The Role of Buildings in a Net Zero UK

The Role of Buildings in a Net Zero UK 587 226 Greengage Environmental

In June 2019 the Government set out proposed legislation to embed a ‘Net Zero by 2050’ target for carbon dioxide emissions into the Climate Change Act.

This follows the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), published in May 2019, and makes the UK the first member of the G7 group of industrialised nations to legislate for Net Zero carbon emissions.

Impact of Buildings

In 2017, the building sector emitted 26% of the UK’s total GHG emissions. Generation of heat in buildings, as well as the impacts of construction materials, products and processes, represent the majority of these emissions, but cooling, lighting, and ventilation all contribute to the overall impact. Reducing the energy demand and further decarbonising these processes will be necessary in achieving the Net Zero target.

CCC Data on the Impact of Buildings

Retrofit vs New Build

It is estimated that 80% of the building stock that will be operating in 2050 has already been built today. The vast majority of the buildings currently in use fall far short of the performance level required to meet Net Zero objectives. This leaves the country with a significant retrofit challenge ahead.

Lack of government policy or financial incentivisation means that energy efficiency retrofit levels are dramatically below where they need to be, even with promising small-scale programmes such as Energiesprong, being rolled out in the UK. The success of the NABERS scheme in Australia and its integration into national policy, presents a pragmatic example of how to improve energy performance in existing buildings and integrate the lessons learnt into the design of future buildings. In June 2019 the Better Building Partnership (BBP) announced a partnership with NABERS to learn from their experience and bring a Design for Performance (DfP) culture to the UK.

NABERS: Impact of Monitoring and Improvement on Office Energy Use

Furthermore, newly constructed buildings are lagging behind the high standards needed for a future Net Zero economy. Last year only 1% of new dwellings were constructed to an EPC A rating, and even more worryingly over 16% of dwellings were being built to a C rating or worse.

Allowing significant numbers of buildings to be constructed to this standard will simply compound the future retrofit problem facing this country. Major energy efficiency improvements will be required before these buildings reach 30 years old. The CCC report recognises and highlights that the cost of retrofitting would be around 5 times the cost of simply building the homes to the correct level now.

The Change Needed

Despite the evident difficulties outlined with the building stock, the CCC report provides recommendations on how emerging and evolving technologies will be vital for the transition and should be encouraged to accelerate their development. The headline topics include:

  • Developing a hydrogen gas grid to replace/supplement the natural gas network;
  • Continuing progress in decarbonisation of the electricity grid;
  • Transferring buildings to a low-carbon heat supply, either hydrogen gas or decarbonised electricity;
  • The mass deep retrofit of the existing building stock;
  • Accelerate electric vehicle adoption;
  • Carbon capture and storage technology deemed a necessity; and
  • Targets for afforestation to be set.

Despite these seemingly achievable recommendations that the report puts forward, the report highlights the lack of effective legislation, policy and incentivisation and the serious impact this is having on progression.

This is felt acutely around the topic of retrofit, where there is little incentive for building owners to carry out energy efficiency improvement under the current framework. Furthermore, there are substantial issues with implementing the overhaul of historic buildings in the UK, where simple retrofit measures are often not possible.

Working Towards Net Zero

Previously there has been an absence of a universal approach to constructing Net Zero buildings. However, the recent work by the UKGBC to develop the Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition has now provided the industry with a clearer approach to developing and assessing buildings against a Net Zero target.

Greengage were pleased to work on the definition as a member of the task group and will be looking to use the framework to provide our clients with an understanding of how they can shape the future of the built environment.