Cundall’s Alan Fogarty says the industry has made significant steps towards net zero despite the Committee for Climate Change’s recent thumbs down

Last week the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) released an update on the progress made by the UK towards its legally binding target of reducing net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero by 2050.

In it, the CCC acknowledges that the initial steps towards a net-zero policy package have been taken but says that this was not the year of policy progress that it called for in 2019. This is unsurprising bearing in mind that the end of 2019 saw a new government installed and just as it was bedding in to tackle the thorny issue of Brexit, the coronavirus crisis hit.

Obviously covid-19 has hampered progress over the last few months, and the report acknowledges the few positive impacts of the virus, like an improvement in air quality and a reduction in carbon emissions, but says these positive impacts will be short lived as the economy restarts.

Alan Fogarty

While this may be true, it does not account for the key lesson to be learnt from the pandemic, that populations are adaptable and resilient, and businesses are already utilising technology and changing the way they operate with home working becoming a real option in many cases. This undoubtedly will result in less need for travel, with online meetings reducing the necessity for commuting, and will certainly form part of a net zero future.

It is true that the construction industry is struggling to translate net zero definitions into practical approaches. However, the industry has made significant steps towards its net zero future, both in the private sector and the public sector and for this reason the CCC’s criticism, in terms of the construction sector at least, is not wholly deserved.

The CCC report is critical of the lack of government policy development in relation to buildings and calls for a step change in ambition and delivery this year. This is absolutely true, as it’s important that efforts to reduce emissions be integrated with efforts to improve the safety and resilience of buildings to fire, flooding and overheating, indoor air quality and efforts to tackle fuel poverty. The communities department and the Treasury have key roles in achieving this, alongside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). However, the CCC report was somewhat dismissive of one notable step in the right direction, and that is the communities department Future Homes Standard proposals which outlined an 80% reduction in permitted carbon emissions for residential development by 2025, with potentially similar levels for non-domestic buildings. This will create a significant step change in the requirement for how buildings are designed in the UK in years to come.

The Department for Education is setting a zero-carbon trajectory for new schools through its GenZero programme. This had commenced before the lockdown

Another key objective frequently raised by the CCC report is that the government will have to invest to boost the economy and that this should be focused on low carbon projects which will create green growth, boost jobs in disadvantaged areas and avoid investments that lock in high carbon emissions.

The government announced this week that £1bn will be injected into a schools building programme which has the potential to achieve the key objectives of the CCC report. Not only will it improve educational opportunities for children in disadvantaged areas across the country, but it will also stimulate the economy and create an area of growth in the construction industry at a time when projects are being affected by covid-19.

Currently, the Department for Education (DfE) is setting a zero-carbon trajectory for new schools through its GenZero programme. This had commenced before the lockdown and the project aims to produce a net zero prototype for the British schools of the future, focusing on reducing operational and embodied carbon emissions, without compromising occupant comfort. It also aims to enhance biodiversity and adapt to the unavoidable changes in climate that we will likely see over the next 50 years and beyond. The DfE has embarked on a number of pilot schemes which are testing a range of initiatives including PassivHaus to inform their decision making on schools design. All of this will lock in low-carbon schools as the government investment is rolled out.

The Buildings and Heat Strategy, due later this year, was highlighted as being critical in terms of changing low-carbon heating from a niche market in the UK to the dominant form of new heating installation by the early-2030s. This is true, but it should be in parallel with a national effort to improve the energy efficiency of UK buildings along with ensuring their safety and comfort as the climate warms. There is a general presumption within the CCC report on the need to eliminate the use of fossil fuels from developments. While this is certainly the long-term goal, it may be a little short sighted in a post-covid cash-strapped environment. The investment in heat pump technology is significant and the running costs based on electricity could be high where existing developments are thermally inefficient. It may be better to continue with low cost gas fired systems and invest in envelope upgrades to reduce heat loss and convert to heat pumps when capital costs have decreased, locking in reduced demand and low carbon.

The CCC report calls for a strategic mechanism to fund tree planting and natural carbon storage at a much larger scale. This is a great start and could be integrated in a strategy for buildings that would enhance biodiversity, reduce the urban island heat effect and provide sheltered external spaces whilst shading the buildings. This is already being considered on many developments and is intrinsic to the DfE’s GenZero strategy.

It is clear that the covid-19 lockdown has been an ordeal for many, however the ability to adapt to new ways of working may provide valuable lessons in terms of approaches to a zero carbon future. Clearly we have a long way to go to achieve net zero carbon, but both the private and public sector are stepping forward to deliver the solutions to allow this to happen and this goal, at least for buildings, may not be as far away as we think.

Alan Fogarty, sustainability partner at Cundall