Gillian Charlesworth

How decarbonising the built environment is the key to meeting net zero

Gillian Charlesworth CEO at BRE
Gillian Charlesworth, CEO at BRE

The climate change crisis is not just about power plants and car engines: our homes and buildings play a huge role in warming our planet. In the UK, approximately a quarter of carbon emissions come from energy use in our buildings. This is a monumental problem to solve, and we need more investment, more regulation and more building science, if we are to have a chance of succeeding. 

I was recently invited to chair a session at Futurebuild 2022 on the theme, ‘Supply, demand and retrofit – how we overcame all three’. The session imagined that we had successfully decarbonised our energy supply by 2035 and reached net zero by 2050. It was fascinating to explore how we managed the transition and its challenges along the way, and why this issue is so crucial to the future of the built environment sector. It prompted some interesting discussions, and I hope, ongoing conversations about some of the problems we face and how to solve them.  

The UK has some catching up to do when it comes to the decarbonisation of our building stock.  Many other countries are well ahead of us in recognising the possibilities of modern methods of construction. And with the world’s oldest housing stock, our retrofit challenge is on a different scale from most of the rest of the world. But if we act now, we stand a chance of reaching net zero and developing further expertise and technology which can be exported internationally. 

Much of the transformative technology which can help turn the tide on climate change already exists. What is required is coherent and cogent policy direction, backed up with the right resources. With the Government’s long-awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy, Net Zero Strategy and Sustainable Finance Roadmap published on 19 October, and the subsequent Budget and COP26 summit, the end of 2021 saw a raft of policy announcements, funding commitments and international agreements designed to help the UK, and the world to reach net zero. 

Elements of these are clearly welcome – for example, the recognition that heat pumps are the technology most likely to decarbonise large numbers of our homes and buildings, and the enhanced support for fuel poor homes – however, there is also much that is missing. 

We were disappointed to see a lack of support for energy efficiency measures in able-to-pay homes. Low carbon heating is not just about new types of heating systems, but about cutting overall heat demand through better insulation, and bold policies will work only if there is buy in from the public. Ministers must set out how they plan to support households to transition to net zero through creative fiscal solutions, such as a VAT cut for home retrofit measures.  

More detail is required on the Government’s plans to decarbonise non-domestic buildings and support SMEs to invest in low carbon energy improvements. It must also set out how it will support industry to train and retrain the workers required to retrofit and future proof our building stock.

This will not only support the environment but unlock economic growth across the UK and demonstrate the excellence of British business. As Lynne Sullivan, one of the panellists at Futurebuild and Chair of Good Homes Alliance said, we need to start seeing the opportunity of retrofit and stop seeing it as an insurmountable burden.  

Looking beyond the Future Homes Standard, it is vital that building regulations begin to address the issue of embodied carbon in the construction of new homes, to ensure that the emissions associated with the energy used in construction materials and processes is accounted for, and that we avoid merely displacing carbon impact rather than reducing it.  

The long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper falls short of seizing the opportunity, and need, to put net zero and zero carbon buildings at the centre of an ambitious programme to develop the regions of the UK. We need to see more detail on the clear support and direction that local authorities will be given to deliver net zero in their areas, and the planning system needs to be reoriented around net zero targets.  

We know that inefficient homes have far reaching consequences. Our report, the Cost of Poor Housing in England, finds that the direct cost of poor quality housing to the NHS in 2021 was £1.4bn, with the wider societal cost reaching £18.5bn. Of these costs, more than half – £857 million – can be attributed to excess cold. The Government’s most recent data on fuel poverty, which BRE helps produce, finds that almost 50% of homes do not have adequate insulation, and that up to 22% of uninsulated households are living in fuel poverty. With rising energy prices pushing more and more people into a widened fuel gap, there is clear evidence that social, economic and health indicators will only worsen if buildings are not made energy efficient now and in the future.  

Addressing these questions will be challenging, but crucial to the successful decarbonisation of the built environment. If we get it right, we can deliver net zero by 2050 and improve the wellbeing and living standards of people and communities throughout the UK.