Andrew Stunell MP writes: Buildings are the key to reducing carbon emissions

We risk losing our battle against climate change unless we make the built environment more sustainable. That was the message I gave the audience at a Greening our Homes seminar arranged by the Policy Exchange Think Tank yesterday. It’s a stark message, but is backed up by the facts. Around half of all the carbon emissions the UK produces each year come from buildings, with our homes contributing 27% on their own. By contrast, only 15% come from our cars, so we could reduce our carbon emissions by a greater amount with a two-thirds cut in emissions from the residential sector than by taking all our cars off the road.

Yet, when compared to sustainable transport, like electric cars, or renewable forms of energy, the built environment gets scant mention. But if we’re committed to being the greenest government ever, we need to do it in the most practical and cost-effective way we can. That means buildings. When you consider that three-quarters of the houses we have now will still be in use in 2050, it also becomes clear that we don’t just need headline policies for new build, but serious action on our existing stock as well.

In Government, Liberal Democrats are trying hard to cover all our bases. Back in October I was able to authorise the up-rating of the Building Regulations to require a 25% increase in the energy efficiency standards for New Build, and we’ve confirmed we’re going ahead with the Zero Carbon Homes standard for 2016.

Chris Huhne at DECC has taken forward plans for the Green Deal – a scheme he and I came up with in opposition in our 2007 policy paper Climate Change Starts at Home – which will target retrofitting existing homes, and is set to start in 2012. By allowing householders to pay for their green home improvements over time rather than upfront, through the savings in their energy bills, it will remove one of the biggest barriers to retrofitting – being able to afford the initial investment in the first place. It will not only be a huge step in the right direction in terms of cutting our carbon emissions, but also in creating jobs, and reducing the number of people in fuel poverty. And it will save householders money too.

Next comes the upgrade of the Building Regulations in 2013, for which work is already underway. Although not one of the more glamorous areas of government policy, the Building Regulations are a crucial tool in improving the quality of the built environment. And thanks to the Private Members Bill I steered on to the statute books in 2004 (the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act since you asked), they can now be amended to take sustainability into account. I’m looking closely at what we can do in 2013 to improve energy efficiency standards, and find ways to supplement the Green Deal.

But setting new standards isn’t the only thing we can do – we need to make sure that existing standards are met, and it’s been apparent for many years that compliance is a big problem. That assertion is now backed up by new research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Their recent evaluation of the Elm Tree Mews Zero Carbon development in York found that although residents were comfortable and pleased with their heating bills, the homes were losing 54% more heat than designed. The report concluded that many processes and cultures within the industry and its supply chain need to change if Zero Carbon Homes is to be more than an empty slogan.

They couldn’t be more right. What’s the point of setting a standard if you don’t meet it? The last Labour Government were big on targets that they never met. We can’t afford to be. If we are to be the greenest government ever, we need to have the greenest built environment ever. Not just setting targets, but delivering results.

As part of the work my department is doing ahead of the next upgrade of Building Regulations in 2013, I have urgently put together an Advisory Committee on Compliance to look into what more we can do to make sure that standards are met, and that carbon reduction in the built environment becomes a reality.

Liberal Democrats across government take our party’s green credentials very seriously. For me, that means fixing buildings. We know that improving F and G rated homes saves more carbon per pound spent than anything else. So if we want the most bang for our buck, it has to be the top priority.

Getting new homes to perform at their design standard comes next. Slogans come last.

Watch this space.

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11 Comments

  • Colin Green 15th Jun '11 - 2:08pm

    Improving the standards for new builds is a great step but the bigger part of the problem is our existing buildings. Many Victorian era structures and older cannot be easily insulated without serious remedial work. A plan is needed to redevelop or replace our older housing stock if we are to be serious in our efforts to meaningfully reduce emissions.

  • Great stuff. Keep up the good work!

    And more efficient homes of course means lower fuel bills!

  • Colin, what you say is true in terms of wall insulation, but there are other things that can relatively easily be done to such buildings. I raised my own property from a 4/10 to a 7/10, by concentrating on factors other than wall insulation.

    There is an attitude that nothing realistic can be done about the energy efficiency of old housing stock, and that EPCs are a bureaucratic nonsense, which leads to people ignoring the measures that are realistic and achievable.
    Renovating and replacing this stock is, I agree, necessary, but there are things we can be doing in the meantime.

    Similarly, newer stock that we would expect to be better than the old, often leaks energy because of mistakes made in construction and maintenance. Our lofts may be insulated, but how well?

  • David Pollard 15th Jun '11 - 5:34pm

    This is great work Andrew. Please make sure that the LibDem actions on Climate Change issues are co-ordinated and more importantly, reported in a co-ordianted way. One of the main difficulties of the Environmentalist position is that they usually try to play off one action agaist another – e.g. if we talk abut conservation, they say we should concentrate on renwables, when in fact a holistic approach is the only one that will work.
    Jusdt as a PS. The ‘Zero Emission’ home is only code level 5 and not code level 6 as defined by the previous government – still we can’t have everything, we are in Coalition with some climate change deniers atter all!

  • Emsworthian 15th Jun '11 - 6:21pm

    It’s been widely known for years that building are a major source of emissions and to its credit the last govenment got the world’s first climate change act in place. One slogan that can be dumped is being the greenest government ever. Huhne’s Green Deal opens all sorts of questions not least what’s in it for Mr Average? Lower bills I hear though better insulation. Why should he want to do this when most of the saving have been collected by B&Q. Similarly large solar subsidies are being scaled back-it’s said to leave money over for the smaller ones. These tend to exclusively for the hugely better off. Community solar has the capacity to bring its benefit to folk living in social housing and who incidently currently help the better off get their rebates from FIT’s. Electric cars is another politician’s chimera. But they take rare earth metals to produce, mostly found in China. Green action yes not greenwash-we’ve had too much that of already.

  • patrick murray 16th Jun '11 - 9:45am

    good article andrew

  • What about lowering capital gains tax for property developers who make houses green?

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