The industry needs clarity from the government on green commitments – and fast

Debbie Hobbs

Last month we saw the launch of the hotly anticipated UK Green Building Council Zero Carbon Non-Domestic Buildings Task Group report. Playing it safe, in the main, the long-overdue report simply reiterated previous commitments to industry recommendations for achieving zero carbon non-domestic buildings by 2019.

However, its overriding message was one of urgency - a call for action from the government in providing much-needed clarity over its fragmented policies. This doesn’t seem to have been heard in the recent Budget.

In truth, it is quite a sad state of affairs when industry feels obligated to issue a report to convince politicians of the virtues of living up to the ideas and solutions rhetorically developed and embraced by them years previously. But unsurprising when these plans have seemingly been long since neglected or at least received little or no attention in working them up into achievable solutions.

The last we heard from the government on the matter was back in 2010, when, as initiated by its Labour predecessor, it simply confirmed its desire for all new-build non-domestic properties to achieve zero carbon status by 2019. Since then, it could be accused of watering down or delaying, rather than building upon and strengthening supportive regulation.

With just under five years to go until the realities of potential under-delivery grip us, clear policies and definitions are now strongly in demand. And, with the 2020 Nearly Zero Energy Building requirement indicating EU targets, the cost implications of failure for UK industry, both in terms of time and money, are apparent.

For the property sector, the lack of a clear route map, for which it has waited nearly eight years, means that rather than sophisticated, efficient and effective plans, solutions will undoubtedly be last minute, untested and more expensive.

With just under five years to go until the realities of potential under-delivery grip us, clear policies and definitions are now strongly in demand

At this months’ Ecobuild conference, the government committee on climate change’s own figures showed that, when taking into account the effect of the recession, very little reduction has been achieved in the non-domestic sector since 1990. Furthermore, CIBSE’s Technical Memorandum 54: Evaluating operational energy performance at the design stage, shows energy in use can be up to three times that of the regulated load.

Highlighting the incoherent stop/start nature of policy implementation, in particular in the recent implementation of Part L of the Building Regulations, the report restates that zero carbon targets should only apply to those “regulated” emissions.

Essentially this means that whole-life carbon emissions currently falling outside the scope of Part L should be brought into regulation post 2019, suggesting that realistically we are calling for a third of energy in use to be zero carbon by 2019. Is this really enough to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from non-domestic buildings by 2050?

Furthermore, the report pushes for industry, working with the government, to form a Zero Carbon Non-Domestic Buildings Hub, like the one currently in operation for domestic buildings, which would enable the finalisation of zero carbon definitions and facilitate the implementation of workable plans to achieve this.

Whilst a good idea in principle, Zero Carbon Hub has yet to demonstrate its pedigree and expertise in tackling the non-domestic real estate sector. As such it may be challenged by some of the more complex issues surrounding the 80% of building stock that will continue to exist by 2019, where there is a need for both owners and tenants to work together to achieve real results.

In short, we are running out of time and it is highly likely that yet again the sustainability agenda could be losing out to other ambitions, particularly as political policies fragment further in the run-up to the elections.

Debbie Hobbs is sustainability manager at Legal & General Property