The government has missed an opportunity to improve new housing by sticking dogmatically to an expensive zero-carbon solution

Barny Evans

I remember in 2007 when I first heard that all homes would be zero carbon from 2016. In Wales, in a classic case of “as long as we beat the English”, it was decided it would be from 2011 (it never happened).

I was working in a mechanical and electrical team and we agreed that it just wasn’t possible. To deliver even notionally “zero carbon” homes you have to produce significant zero carbon power on-site and on some dwellings, such as city centre blocks of flats, that simply isn’t realistic.

However, to reduce the CO2 emissions from dwellings by around 80% was possible, and relatively cost-effective; it was the final 20% that was very expensive and often led to perverse incentives or calculation fudges. Therefore the best thing to do would be to deliver efficient, cheap to run, low carbon homes and stop there. Everybody wins.

The previous government pressed on and created the Zero Carbon Hub (ZCH), initially paid for by taxpayer funding and then, when the coalition government came in, through industry funding. I admire the ZCH, it has produced good reports and analysis of what is required to achieve zero carbon homes. However, two things have stopped it delivering what I believe are the right answers: a moving target, and an inability to conclude that you can’t deliver zero carbon homes and stop there. The moving target has come from a series of government policy shifts, the first being that the target would not include unregulated loads in the calculation (basically things you plug-in), the second being the recent announcement that small developments won’t have to meet the standard. 

The result is that people buying their new home in 2017 will actually pay a carbon tax of around £1,000-£4,000. This is particularly ironic, as if they bought the inefficient, old house around the corner they wouldn’t pay it.

Most importantly, prompted by the ZCH, the government agreed that it would not be possible to eliminate carbon emissions on-site, (essentially zero carbon homes were not possible) and proposed a scheme called “Allowable Solutions”|(AS) which will see developers pay for off-site carbon emission reductions, such as insulating other homes or efficient street lighting, to off-set remaining emissions.

Apart from the fact that AS will probably not deliver predicted carbon savings, (savings delivered are found to be fractions of that predicted), the AS payments will ultimately be paid for by the buyer/occupier and will not be used to improve the efficiency of their home or produce the power on-site, so it will not reduce their bills. Also, while I am not a fan of AS, I simply cannot see logic for the exclusion of small developments. It will result in inevitable gaming and will discourage the use of energy efficiency/renewables on the buildings which could have reduced running costs.

The result is that people buying their new home in 2017 will be told they are buying a super-duper zero carbon home, but actually pay a carbon tax (AS) of around £1,000-£4,000 they won’t know about (unless the home is part of small development), and have energy bills that aren’t particularly low, (and may be more if they are connected to more expensive low carbon heating). On top of that, it is doubtful the carbon emission reductions calculated will be delivered. The carbon tax is particularly ironic, as if they bought the inefficient, old house around the corner they wouldn’t pay it.

We will all pay for this in the end, as the homeowners will pay for investments elsewhere, energy bills will be higher than necessary, and our overall carbon emissions will be higher. This all could have been avoided if we had just agreed that zero carbon homes cannot be achieved as a standard and instead aimed to set a standard for efficient homes that minimises running costs and carbon emissions.

Barny Evans is principal consultant, renenwables and energy efficiency, at WSP