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What are the zero carbon commitments and targets?

The country’s housing stock currently accounts for about 16%, or one sixth, of all our carbon emissions and is therefore contributing hugely to our negative impact on the climate.

The Government’s advisory body on what we should be doing to meet our international responsibilities has stated that these emissions must be completely eliminated from our housing, if we are to stand any chance of meeting our net zero commitment by the year 2050 – which is now only 26 years away.

Of course, most of the housing debate, certainly in the current General Election campaign, is about the cost of housing (both mortgages for owners and rents charged for tenants), the numbers being built and the location of any new housing.

A lot of focus is being placed on how we can help first time buyers, how councils can be encouraged to build more affordable homes and how we prevent private landlords from unfairly evicting tenants or leaving the rental market altogether.

But the decarbonisation of our existing and new homes is of vital importance, particularly as residential properties tend to be with us for decades and decades, often standing for more than a hundred years. Yet it is strangely very low down the list of issues being debated by politicians, despite it posing a very real existential threat to the future of babies being born today and in coming years.

Perhaps, not surprisingly the Green party has set out the boldest manifesto commitment. It is proposing a £49billion investment programme over the next five years to insulate homes and public buildings, and to fit all properties with heat pumps.

The country doesn’t appear to be well set up for making the huge changes needed

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney News editor, Housing Management & Maintenance

How to retrofit

For existing properties, the perceived wisdom is very much on how can we retrofit old and new technologies (such as loft and wall insulation, as well as solar panels and heat pumps) and pay for them, as well as educating or persuading ourselves to adopt behavioural changes. This can be anything from turning the thermostat down to taking fewer showers, and of a shorter duration.

None of the above is particularly revolutionary, but it is proving to be surprisingly difficult to get the message across and be adopted by the wider general public. The recent elections to the European Parliament where Green parties on the continent suffered big losses has been a particularly difficult wake up call.

Even when the public want to make changes to their homes, they often find it difficult to track down good advice on what needs to be done to their home, to access the funds necessary to pay for work, or to locate competent contractors. As a country we don’t appear to be well set up for making the huge changes needed to significantly change our ways.

Near to where I live in the southwest of England, there is a large scale new housing development about to get started. This will see about 750 new homes built over the next 2 – 3 years, with the possibility of another 200 homes being added after that.

Because planning permission was obtained some years ago, all the new homes are to be fitted with gas boilers for their heating and hot water. The developers have confirmed they are not willing to change the scheme to one where heat pumps will be used, even though this development lends itself perfectly to an estate-based heating scheme using ground source heat pumps. The contractors have said it would require a change in legislation and for it to be applied retrospectively for them to comply with such changes.      

This strikes me as unhelpful, short-sighted and illogical, particularly as in all their marketing material they wax lyrically about how green and sustainable the new homes will be.

A clear framework is needed

It also emphasises how urgently we need to crack on and ensure we have a clear framework in place for the design and construction of new homes with energy efficiency and decarbonisation placed front and centre in the planning and building of all new housing.

If possible, we should also seek to apply the same principles to schemes where building work has not yet started, or where it is being delivered in stages or phases and there is time to effect changes to homes being built from 2025 onwards.

At the moment we are pinning all our hopes on the Futures Homes Standard (FHS) to deliver us the housing which is both fit for purpose and helps us to meet our climate change commitments. But the overarching aim of the FHS is to reduce carbon emissions from new residential buildings by ‘only’ 75% to 80%. It is a mystery as to why it stopped short of the 100% target.

The new standard is due to be implemented from 2025, unless an incoming government decides to change its go live date or it decides to change its specification requirements, which necessitates a new consultation on the changes.

The FHS focuses on improving heating and hot water systems and ways of reducing energy waste, primarily through better building materials, windows and carbon free heating systems. 

A consultation on the latest draft FHS ran between December 2023 and March 2024. This set out the proposed technical standards required to meet the FHS through changes to Building Regulations Part L (conservation of fuel and power) and Part O (ventilation). It has been criticised by various green groups and energy sustainability experts who consider the proposed measures to be insufficient to meet carbon emission targets.

Since the consultation on the FHS closed, Whitehall officials have not released a response, nor have they confirmed what the final technical details will be.

Potential delays and drawbacks

It is likely that whichever party forms the next government, there will be a six or 12-month transitional period between the laying date of the regulations and publication of the full technical specification and the regulations coming into force. This is to allow time for the industry to adapt, but it eats dangerously into the timelines.

A major drawback is that the FHS only requires new homes to be ‘zero carbon ready’. Achieving net zero is also reliant on the decarbonisation of the electricity supply system which might not happen until 2035 at the earliest.

Other notable concerns about the FHS are the omission of solar panels, a lowering of ventilation and building fabric standards and too strong a focus on minimising upfront capital costs for developers rather than prioritising occupants’ fuel bills.

In addition, the FHS does not address embodied carbon – the carbon emissions generated from the production and transportation of building materials, the construction process itself and the ongoing maintenance of a building. Embodied carbon is a huge contributor to the whole life carbon of a building and logically it has to be addressed if we are serious about taking a holistic approach to carbon reduction.

Despite its drawbacks, the overall intention of the FHS is positive as it will be a mandatory, national requirement to improve energy efficiency and it should dramatically cut the carbon emissions of new homes. The phasing out of gas boilers in favour of heat pumps is an important step towards a zero-carbon future.

However, the new government must ensure the FHS is sufficient to meet net-zero targets and support housing developers, local authorities and others involved in the work to transition us towards net zero, or we will be returning to this topic before very long.

Patrick Mooney is News editor, Housing Management & Maintenance