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Frustration and hope on the road to net zero

As the curtain starts to descend on 2023, how was it for you?

It was certainly another unpredictable and confusing year for the environment.

Yet despite the negative headlines that surrounded everything from swimming in sewerage around our coastline to the executive travel choices of the Prime Minister while he popped out for an hour or so, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful moving into 2024.

COP28 might have felt a bit like a “blink and you’ll miss it” event.

A little like staging the World Cup in the baking heat of the footballing desert of Qatar, picking an oil rich state to host the world’s foremost environmental and climate change conference seemed motivated by unseen factors.

Most headlines seemed to revolve around our monarch’s choice of tie design and the possibility that it included a coded message to the PM.

80m home windows need to be replaced if we hope to meet the net zero targets

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification magazine

A climate U-turn

Indeed, putting aside such minor distractions and others like PM Rishi Sunak’s major environmental speech a few months ago when he effectively signalled a major U-turn on a number of initiatives and programmes, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has reported positively on the wider industry’s continued march towards Net Zero.

Marking two years since its launch, the CLC’s CO2nstruct Zero programme has published its 7th progress update to its Performance Framework.  The Framework was launched at COP26 in November 2021, as a single universal tool to collect data and report on how construction is tackling the carbon challenge.

The Performance Framework comprises 31 metrics across nine priority areas, each of which tells a story of how the sector is reducing its carbon emissions across construction activities; the resulting buildings and structures; and the transport of products and materials.

Matt Palmer, CLC Industry Sponsor for Biodiversity and Net Zero said: “The construction sector has the ambition, knowledge and potential to lead the drive to Net Zero, and (this) report highlights the positive progress we have made together over the past two years. However, there is still more work to be done, and it is vital that the construction industry works together to innovate and evolve, and take the steps needed to meet our Net Zero targets.”

A revolving political door

No room for complacency, therefore, and that has certainly been evident throughout 2023.

This has especially been true as we have all needed to keep up with revolving door trend within British politics that has seen Prime Ministers come and go with unseemly haste and Cabinet Ministers appear and disappear in equally rapid succession.

The last reshuffle (at time of writing) saw the 16th Housing Minister appointed in the last 13 years.

It also saw another new Environment Secretary installed and prompted many in the industry to call for some stability – albeit with one eye on the possibility of a General Election being called in May 2024.

Simon McWhirter, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) said: “Just as no company could hope to deliver strong results if they’d had 16 changes of top executive in 13 years, the unprecedented turnover of ministers leading our portfolios has hampered progress in the built environment at the very time that we needed to be accelerating towards net zero.

“We urge the Government to make the most of the coming months by finally investing in the proven, scalable, and transformative changes that are urgently needed to tackle the interlocking climate and cost of living emergencies.”

No continuity or cohesion

That lack of continuity and cohesion, however, is already having a big impact on the country’s preparedness when it comes to climate chance and the move to Net Zero.

A lack of long-term planning from the Government risks jeopardising the UK’s legally-mandated pledge to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, particularly in the context of the government's announcement in September 2023 to delay the phasing out of new fossil fuel vehicles and heating systems. In a wide-ranging report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warned that too often the Government’s plans for supporting the progression of net zero technologies are short-term, putting at risk the large amounts of private investment needed to achieve net zero by 2050.

The report finds that the Government, when setting out timescales for new technologies to be delivered in 2021, did not consider what levels of long-term public investment might be required up to 2050 to support new technologies to deliver net zero. This is despite the Government believing that long-term public investment will be needed to encourage the private sector to invest.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “If the Government continues to leave businesses to peer through a haze of uncertainty, then that investment will not be forthcoming. Businesses and consumers need certainty.

“On supporting innovation for net zero, the Government needs to agree with itself on what success looks like, what failure looks like, and report transparently on progress. Such basic building blocks being absent four years after a pledge critical to our very way of life was made is disappointing. The Government must call an end to this faltering approach, or risk spelling out to industry, the public and the world that the UK is simply not serious about tackling climate change.”

What about education?

But the warnings keep coming and the response still seems to be lacking.

Most recently, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has warned that the Department for Education is not “moving at pace” to deliver its sustainability commitments, undermining its own targets.

The Committee said it understands that the risks to schools of the effects of climate change – such as flooding, overheating and water scarcity – have not yet been fully grasped in Government.

While schemes such as Climate Action Plans are welcome, EAC is concerned that the availability of sufficient funding could hamper efforts to truly address the effects of climate change on the education estate.

EAC Chair, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said: “It struck the Committee that while there is some understanding of the dangers climate change poses to schools and colleges in England, not enough is being done to adapt to the risks from flooding, overheating and water scarcity.

“Making the education estate fit for Net Zero Britain will be a costly and significant undertaking. There is no time to lose and the Department for Education must urgently publish detailed plans for mitigating risks caused by climate change, and set out how it will deliver its own sustainability strategy.”

A waiting game

The waiting game continues. But target deadlines are approaching faster than the PM in his private jet or personal helicopter, so waiting is no longer a realistic proposition.

For example, 80 million home windows need to be replaced if the UK hopes to meet the government’s net zero targets.

That is just one of the alarming statistics revealed in a report, ‘A Window of Opportunity’, jointly published by the Glass and Glazing Federation (GGF) and British Glass.

Chris Beedel, Head of Advocacy at the GGF, said: “We are in continuous discussion with the government about net zero targets and the positive contribution that would be made if older double glazed windows were to be replaced.

“The residential sector currently contributes to almost a quarter of the entire country’s carbon emissions. This needs to change – reducing emissions from households, and therefore improving glazing, is crucial in helping reach net zero, which we are all committed to.”

Admittedly, the doom and gloom might still overshadow the green-tinted optimism of the CLC’s latest Net Zero update.

There are still encouraging signs.

Back in March, Rishi Sunak managed to get his local energy supplier at his private residence in North Yorkshire to upgrade the heat network to keep his swimming pool at optimum temperature all year round

The struggle is real. But there is always hope.

Paul Groves Editor of Specification magazine