All three main parties have laid their environmental cards on the table, but nobody seems to have the full set of policies laid out in the correct way to make a real difference
Over the past few years, each of the main parties has displayed impressive moments of boldness. In the early days of David Cameron’s leadership, the Tories put the environment at the top of their agenda, transforming the cut and thrust of green politics. The government announced the world-beating target for all new homes to be zero-carbon from 2016. And now the Liberal Democrats have unveiled their vision for a zero-carbon Britain by 2050.
The UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) own manifesto challenges a new government to work with the industry to do five things:
- Commit to a 50% cut in carbon emissions from the built environment by 2020
- Stick to zero-carbon targets for new homes and new buildings
- Make low-carbon home refurbishment easy, affordable and attractive
- Drive the refurbishment of non-domestic buildings up the agenda
- Promote expansion of sustainable community infrastructure across the UK.
The three main parties’ manifestos go some way to addressing the last four of these. But what we need is a coherent plan to transform our built environment within 10 years.
Politicians need to be honest about the fact the UK cannot achieve its targets unless it requires us all to cut energy waste in our own homes and buildings
Bold visions come with risks. They wouldn’t be bold otherwise. But we’ve learned some important things over the past three years. As the UKGBC’s membership has grown tenfold, we’ve witnessed major parts of the industry signing up to play a part in our campaign. We’ve found that industry is often prepared to go the extra mile for better policy. And we’ve seen that smart regulation isn’t bad for business; rather it creates the conditions in which new technologies, new businesses and new markets can thrive.
Few believed a serving housing minister would commit to zero-carbon new homes; even fewer believed that the housebuilding industry would rise to the challenge. But they did. Three years on from the launch of the zero-carbon target and the Code for Sustainable Homes, the housebuilding industry’s attitude to low and zero-carbon design has changed beyond recognition.
Of course the journey has been fraught with obstacles. That’s not surprising; when we set off, nobody knew what zero carbon would actually mean, least of all the officials who had to translate aspiration into regulation. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong. On the contrary, it was a bold step designed to jolt an industry out of complacency.
Zero carbon meant no more business as usual, and sent people back to the drawing board. In exchange for an unprecedented step change, the industry got a single national standard for sustainable homes, and a 10-year regulatory trajectory that enabled it to invest and innovate. It also brought a new kind of co-operation between government and industry, embodied in the Zero Carbon Hub.
The three main party manifestos go some way to addressing most of the UKGBC’s aims. But what we need is a coherent plan to transform our built environment within a decade
How much progress would we have made over the past three years if it hadn’t been for the zero-carbon target and the Code for Sustainable Homes? How much of the growth of Ecobuild, from under 1,000 delegates just a few years ago to more than 40,000 this year, is actually attributable to this one step? How much collaboration between housebuilders, architects, engineers, product manufacturers, and energy suppliers has happened as a direct result?
It will take strong leadership to achieve a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. The government must set the direction, and with conviction. Only by committing to mandate the change, will it send a strong enough signal to the private sector to give it the confidence to invest and innovate.
That means politicians need to be honest about the fact that the UK cannot achieve its carbon reduction targets unless we are all required to cut energy waste in our own homes and buildings. But that clarity will galvanize businesses to come up with new products and services and leverage billions of pounds of private sector finance, to make it easy and affordable to make improvements before the regulatory stick is felt. It will create tens of thousands of jobs, cut energy bills and ensure affordable warmth and healthier living and working conditions for millions, contribute to energy security, and cut up to 45% of carbon emissions in the UK.
Recently I spoke to Diana Urge-Vorsatz, the scientist who has led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s work on buildings and climate change. Her research showed the built environment offers the biggest carbon abatement opportunity. But she gave me a warning: if we only tinker with the energy efficiency of our homes and buildings now we will lose the opportunity we have to get this right, and lock in unaffordable levels of emissions for decades.
We need a government with a bold vision, to help the industry make it a reality. And we need to start now.
Paul King is chief executive of the UKGBC