Private and public sector must move faster to decarbonise the built environment but important steps have been made 

Alan Fogarty

The High Court’s recent ruling that the UK government’s net zero strategy is “unlawful” and “inadequate” may seem like a win for climate campaigners, but is it? While it’s always good to make sure our leaders are held to account, I think this gives us an opportunity to review the progress made in our industry before criticising the net zero strategy thus far.

The reality is that the ambition to achieve net zero comes with a huge learning curve, and even those of us in the industry whose daily work is to engineer solutions to the challenge, don’t know all the answers just yet.

While it’s true that the data may not yet be available, it’s not fair to assume that no strides have been made toward achieving the UK’s net zero goals.

It’s not fair to assume that no strides have been made toward achieving the UK’s net zero goals

The UK government has actually done quite a lot when it comes to achieving net zero, and in the coming years we can expect to see new building regulations that significantly increase the standards for building design and in turn, rapidly decrease emissions associated with buildings.These changes to the building regulations, which are expected for 2025, are suggesting a 70-80% reduction compared with where we were in 2020.

>> Also read: UKGBC calls for standardised measures of carbon savings when reusing materials

>> This is how we rise to the retrofit challenge

>> We can’t tackle embodied carbon if we don’t measure it properly

What we at Cundall know from the work we do with the public sector, is that there is already a huge amount of effort being put into the decarbonisation of assets by the Department of Justice (DoJ), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Department for Education (DfE). These departments are looking at how they decarbonise their entire building stock and setting an example for how other sectors can do the same.

And it’s not just since the 2015 Paris Agreement that these sectors have been spurred into action when it comes to combatting climate change. The DfE has been working on this for a decade now, setting an objective for low-energy schools as early as 2012, as part of its original output specification.

So, it’s not all black and white when we look at whether the government’s current net zero strategy will help us achieve our goals. Yes, the government’s strategy is imperfect, its legislation is slow to be implemented and there is a disconnect between government departments (particularly the Treasury), but there is plenty going on in the built environment that is positive because our industry is already doing a lot to help drive the built environment toward zero. And since our industry is responsible for nearly 40% of emissions globally, that’s a significant step in the right direction.

One of the important initiatives that will drive down emissions in the industry in the coming years is currently being developed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Recognising that if you can’t see a problem, you can’t solve it, the department is developing a building certification based on actual energy use, which will provide visibility of actual energy performance compared with EPCs.

Another significant step forward is the inclusion of embodied carbon in the net zero carbon objectives of industry organisations and government departments alike. This started with the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) when it included embodied carbon as part of its Net Zero Carbon Roadmap. Shortly after we also helped the Greater London Assembly (GLA) prepare its Whole Life-Cycle Assessments Guidance, which is a game changer for London and will likely influence the embodied carbon targets set by other local authorities throughout the UK.

Elsewhere, the DfE is now requiring contractors to calculate and report the embodied carbon content of new schools to work out its own targets, we’ve helped the Welsh Government set targets for their schools, and the MoD is applying the net zero definition to its entire building stock as well.

Of course, this momentum toward zero that is being driven by the industry – and also by investors who are increasingly demanding sustainable assets – is not without its problems. The future targets being proposed for operational and embodied carbon are seemingly overly ambitious in some instances and are unrealistic.

Energy is expensive, and I find it hard to believe that people are deliberately wasting it, so what do we turn off? Our computers? 

For example, the CRREM targets suggest that office buildings shouldn’t use more than 20kWhr/m2 in 2040 compared with a current typical usage of 180 Whr/m2. Energy is expensive, and I find it hard to believe that people are deliberately wasting it, so what do we turn off? Our computers? These targets are unrealistic based on current energy use. It’s important to remember that zero carbon does not mean zero energy, and that part of our journey to achieving net zero carbon is investing in renewable energy and decarbonising the grid. Yes, it’s important to consider our energy usage in all aspects of our life and work, but realistically we need to decarbonise the grid to have any major impact.

When we reflect on the progress made so far by the government for our industry, it’s true that things have moved too slowly, and decision making is often muddled. As already stated, this is an evolving area and differences of opinion and advice do not make it easy for government decision makers. Speed of development and change differs from department to department, and the lack of support from the Treasury unfortunately hinders progress. The pandemic showed how the government could target interventions in research with great success, and now this is needed in the built environment, particularly around retrofit.

On the positive side, individual government departments are making progress, and this is driving change. The upcoming changes to energy reporting will make a big difference to the impact our industry has, and there is more to come. The biggest positive for now is that the government has set an agenda, showing that there is support for the net zero objective.

We could have an endless discussion about what has not been done, but when it comes down to it, we all now know the trajectory we are on, and that knowledge is giving clients and finance the push to help us make progress. It might be frustratingly slow at times, but this will speed up over the next few years as policy and technology improve to help us engineer solutions to the net zero challenge.

Alan Fogarty is a sustainability partner at Cundall