The media may have temporarily moved on to the global credit crunch, or the debate over the economic contribution of immigrant communities but climate change is still the most pressing economic challenge to the UK’s long-term economic competitiveness. And much of the battle with Climate Change will be fought on the home front – in the nation’s sitting rooms and kitchens. Tough decisions and difficult changes in behaviour are required if we are to meet the UK’s current target of a 60% reduction in green house gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. Even more so if we are to achieve an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050 as recently suggested by the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank, as the Government’s Climate Change bill passes through its second reading in the House of Commons.
When it comes to the energy efficiency of the vast proportion of existing British housing stock, we are still firmly rooted in the middle ages. Some research suggests that the energy efficiency of an average Mock Tudor house may be less than that of an original Tudor-era home. In a country where home ownership is such an important social and political touchstone, the residential sector will have a particularly important part to play in reaching these targets. It accounts for 30% of UK energy demand, and some 28% of CO2 emissions. The number of households in the UK has grown in recent years – a 36% increase from 1970 to 2001 alone – outweighing improvements in efficiency. Projections suggest this trend is set to continue.
Policies in relation to the efficiency of housing stock need to work harder than they are currently to achieve the necessary results. These policies are currently expected to deliver a total cut in residential sector carbon emissions of 10% from 1990 levels so there is clearly someway still to go.
So, what will it take to break through the 60% barrier, or push us toward meeting a target of 80%? One thing that is absolutely clear is that the solution will need to be tailored to the specific nature of housing stock in the UK – some of the oldest and least efficient housing stock in Europe. The historical thermal qualities of the building fabric means that space heating accounts for roughly 60% of the total delivered residential UK energy demand. Standard Assessment Procedure scores (measuring the thermal performance of buildings, heating appliances and energy prices for different heating fuels) estimate that 2 million homes are rated below 30 out of 120, representing a very low efficiency standard.
Demographic changes and a growing population mean that new builds will have a part to play – and legislation and the industry is starting to address. Some projections say we will need an extra 6.8 million homes to be built by 2050 to meet the growth in population and demographic changes.
Improvements in technology, standards and regulations mean new construction moves closer to low or zero space energy heating demand. The design of new buildings simply offers more options for the use of natural ventilation, high quality insulation, high thermal mass, as well as the integration of low and zero carbon energy sources such as CHP, biomass and Photo Voltaic Technology. At a very functional level then, design will have an important part to play in reaching the targets.
However, a much more important challenge is that presented by existing housing stock since we are already living in at least two thirds of housing stock that will be standing in 2050. Refurbishment will be absolutely critical in improving the energy efficiency of this housing stock and reducing our domestic carbon footprint as a nation.
We will need to exercise all options for refurbishment – from the easier, more cost effective measures, through to the more expensive and potentially disruptive solutions. These will need to be taken up in much higher numbers than at present.
There are an estimated 17 million homes with cavity walls, of which 9 million are uninsulated. The average cost of insulating a homes cavity walls is £274, producing annual energy bill savings of £110 and a payback in 2.5 years. Though most homes with a loft have some form of loft insulation, the commonest thickness of 100mm is well below the recommended level. So many of our houses are literally leaking heat, and money – this can be sorted quickly and effectively through measures such as loft and cavity insulation, investing in an efficient condensing boiler, and simple behavioural changes and more sparing use of energy.
However, energy consumption is not a deciding factor in purchasing a property. It is not something that seems to weigh particularly heavily on the minds of homeowners. Though we have become more environmentally aware as a society, this has not translated into action and reduced carbon emissions in the residential sector. Levels of knowledge are often low and arguably, a sense of urgency about reducing carbon from housing is lacking. Despite our interest in home improvement programmes, it seems we know relatively little about improving the energy efficiency of our homes.
Education will play a hugely important part then in achieving this goal. Clear, reliable information about the energy performance of properties – as included in Home Information Packs – is a step in the right direction. Other efforts to improve the energy-literacy of society are also needed. We need more examples of programmes such as ‘Green Streets’, a year long nationwide energy saving experiment, being run by British Gas and the IPPR, which is designed to educate households about the steps they can take to reduce their emissions. Green Streets is a fun community building project that gives eight streets £30,000 each to spend on energy efficiency. The most successful street in reducing its carbon footprint gets a further £50,000 worth of energy saving equipment to invest in a local community project. Projects like this are beneficial in more ways than just bringing carbon efficiency to forefront of householders thinking. They engender community cohesion and the most sustainable thing we can do is for communities to love where they live, put down roots and end this wasteful short termism that has blighted too many housing developments from the 60’s onwards.