What next for energy efficient homes?

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Guest post, by Dr Alina Congreve, Centre for Cities, University of Hertfordshire, and
Dr Dan Greenwood, University of Westminster

The controversy surrounding the scrapping of the zero carbon target for new homes continues, despite its removal by the government in July 2015. The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee report, published in March 2016, was highly critical of the government’s approach to energy efficiency and housing. There has also been a strong reaction to the closure of the Zero Carbon Hub at the end of March. The Hub was widely regarded as an exemplary model of collaboration between government, industry and third sector.

Critics of the government’s approach to new housing policy point out that the initial drivers behind the zero carbon target have not gone away. European requirements that all new buildings are ‘nearly zero’ energy by 2021 are still in place. The Climate Change Act requires a fall in emissions of 80% by 2050 (from a 2006 baseline). Given the limits to reduction from retrofitting existing buildings, emissions reductions from new build need to be even higher.

There is a widespread view within the sector that the most effective way to achieve energy efficient new homes is through regulation, supported by appropriate tools and training developed in collaboration with the industry. For planners working in local authorities, the options for requiring developers to go beyond the Building Regulations are severely curtailed. Following the Housing Standards Review, they can no longer require developers to build to higher levels of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Influencing new development through stronger regulations was a key part of many cities’ climate action plans.

In spite of this, local authorities are still able to set higher environmental requirements for commercial buildings and insist that developers build to BREEAM standards. When the costs and savings of regulation are calculated by the government the energy savings to office occupants are included in the calculations. However, when the costs of energy standards for new homes are calculated by the government, energy savings for households are not included. The current processes of reviewing policy are based on financial costs and benefits, but value judgements are made about which costs are included. The Housing Standards Review has created a long period of uncertainty for the industry. The transaction costs that result from this uncertainty, such as staff training or product development to meet a new standard that is subsequently withdrawn, are also not included in policy impact financial calculations.

Possible front cover image II

In the short-term, strengthening Building Regulations or modernizing regulatory tools such as the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) seem unlikely. Voluntary codes and standards can have an important complementary role to play alongside regulation. Some landowners who wish to go beyond the legal minimum find a benchmark developed by a third party valuable. Current examples can be found in Norwich, where the city council is using a combination of AECB and Passivhaus standards on sites that it owns and are being developed for housing. In the current market for new homes, consumer drivers are relatively weak and buyers and mortgage lenders rarely place a premium on energy efficiency or other sustainable features. There is, however, the potential to do more to change this situation. If a standard adds value to a property by appealing to buyers, then the business case to do more becomes much stronger.


These views are based on a report carried out for the  Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Trust on the Future for policy and standards for low and zero carbon new homes. The report draws on over 70 interviews with key stakeholders in the industry. It is available free to download.

Alina Congreve is an Associate at the Centre for Cities at the University of Hertfordshire. An experienced sustainability and built environment professional, Alina has specialist expertise in a number of areas, including sustainability and new residential development and resource efficiency in construction.

Read our other blog posts on energy efficient homes:

An all-round approach: could the circular economy help the world turn the corner on climate change?

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Image by Krdan via Creative Commons

This week, politicians from around the world are making a final attempt to craft a deal on climate change at the UN COP21 talks in Paris. The stakes could not be higher. Climate scientists largely agree that if the global surface temperature increase exceeds 2 ºC, the consequences could be catastrophic – drought, fires, coastal flooding, loss of agricultural production and increased spread of disease.

The role of the circular economy

Many believe one key element that could play a crucial role in curbing global warming is the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

Since the industrial revolution, the world’s economies have used a linear “take-make-consume-dispose” pattern of growth, a model which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheaply disposable. But, in recent years, concerns about a combination of issues, including the depletion of raw materials and the amount of waste being sent to landfill sites, has increased interest in the concept of the circular economy.

The circular economy in focus

In our most recent “In focus” briefing, we take a look at the application of circular economy principles. The briefing outlines the development of the concept, which has moved from the fringes of the ecology movement in the 1970s to the mainstream of thinking on economic development today.

Circular economy principles have been adopted by companies such as Renault and by early-adopting governments in Japan and Scandinavia. Last week, the European Commission adopted a new Circular Economy Package aimed at boosting competitiveness, creating jobs and generating sustainable growth.

As well as highlighting the economic and environmental benefits of the circular economy, the briefing also describes barriers to further progress, such as product design promoting obsolescence and weak fiscal incentives for business.

The briefing also focuses on the role of UK local authorities in making the transition to a circular economy, and provides case studies highlighting examples of good practice.

Practising what they preach

As the international delegates in Paris try to deliver the first new global climate accord in 18 years, they might be inspired by their surroundings. The organisers of the conference have taken circular economy principles to heart, including the provision of locally sourced food, water fountains instead of plastic cups and the rental of furniture, structures, material and lighting for the event.

With the fate of the planet in the balance, it might not be too much of an exaggeration to describe the circular economy as a concept whose time has come.


The Circular Economy (In focus) is available to download here

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Eco-Cultures: blending arts and the environment

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the "Concrete Antenna"

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the “Concrete Antenna” Image: John Lord via Creative Commons

By James Carson

To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.
Wendell Berry

The worlds of place and imagination came together last weekend at EcoCultures, Glasgow’s festival of environmental research, policy and practice. With over 40 presentations covering topics as diverse as land reform, poetry, sculpture and urban ecology, the festival provided numerous opportunities to learn how artists, scientists and community activists are responding in very different ways to their environments.

Sharing a sense of place

For Rebecca Crowther, exploring shared experiences of nature is important for understanding notions of belonging. Rebecca’s PhD thesis is based on collecting and truthfully representing stories, watching people interact with the natural world, and collaboratively documenting experiences using journals and photographs. As Rebecca observed: “The stories people tell about places reveal which places matter to them, and why.”

Community gardens

Blair Cunningham’s presentation also highlighted the value of places for collective sharing. As part of a larger body of research looking at Glasgow’s growing network of community gardens, Blair was commissioned to create an artist book to explore some of the issues raised by the research, such as community empowerment and social inclusion.

ArtistBook

Blair Cunningham’s Artist Book. Image produced by permission of Aye-Aye Books

He described the process of identifying these community gardens, some of which are hidden from view, but still very-well used by their communities. As well as providing spaces for growing plants, fruit and vegetables, community gardens are also meeting places, with many offering learning opportunities, such as cookery classes. However, they are also engaged in a battle to survive. While some are dependent on grant funding, others rely on the good will of landowners, which may be withdrawn if the land can be sold for property development. Even so, the numbers of community gardens in Glasgow continue to grow.

Environmental policy

Growth of a different kind was under discussion at the environmental policy session.  Luke Devlin, from the Centre for Human Ecology, noted that the consumerist way of life had emerged as a significant measure of growth, and that very little policy was challenging that narrative. Growth, at any cost, he argued, means people and natural resources have become expendable. With 2015 likely to be the hottest on record for the planet, Luke held out little optimism for the outcome of the UN climate change talks next month in Paris.

However, Patrick Harvie MSP, from the Scottish Green Party offered some signs of hope. When the Green Party was established in 1973, he observed, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. But now, he said, recycling is seen as imperative for households, companies and local authorities. Every political party in the Scottish Parliament supports climate change targets, and MSPs are held to account for their environmental policies. Another measure of progress, he suggested, was the recent speech given by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, warning bankers and insurers on the risks of climate change, something unthinkable a decade ago.

All of this, Patrick argued, was still not enough, but politicians had to remind people that further progress was still possible:  “We cannot engage with the public on the basis that we’re all doomed.”

The artist’s response to climate change

Throughout the day, artists provided evidence of creative responses to environmental change. Rob St John showed a film about the “Concrete Antenna”, a sound installation at Newhaven, near Edinburgh. The antenna evokes the site’s various histories as a blacksmith, a railway siding and now a thriving creative workshop beside a wildlife-rich cycle route.

Later, Marlene Creates explained the development of her Boreal Poetry Garden in six acres of forest outside St John’s, Newfoundland. During the summer months, Marlene leads visitors on a walk through the garden, pausing to read site-specific poems. Sometimes, special guests, such as geologists or musicians will add further dimensions to the walk.

The garden is Marlene’s way of raising awareness about the threat to the Boreal forest, which covers a vast area across Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and a small part of Scotland. As Marlene observed, its immensity is no guarantee of its protection from climate change and deforestation. Even in her own neighbourhood, she reported, parts of the forest are being converted to lawns.

Like many of the contributions to the EcoCultures event, Marlene’s poetry garden served as a reminder that individuals and communities are finding ever-more creative ways to describe, protect and live with their ever-changing environment.

 

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Goodbye Green Deal: the government’s decision to axe its energy efficiency scheme leaves a gap that will be hard to fill

By James Carson

The Green Deal is dead. Last month, the energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, announced that no further applications for finance from the project would be accepted.

The Green Deal was launched by the coalition government in 2013 with the aim of improving energy efficiency in homes across England, Scotland and Wales. Under the programme, households could borrow up to £10,000 for household improvements such as double glazing or home insulation, and make repayments through their energy bills.

As well as addressing fuel poverty, the energy efficiency scheme was also regarded as having a crucial role in meeting the UK’s emission reduction targets.

But, almost from day one, the programme was criticised as too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer and too hard for householders to understand. The first round of Green Deal funding attracted fewer than 2000 applications.

Although take-up improved in subsequent years, the scheme was still poorly regarded, not helped by reports of botched installations. Last year the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee concluded that the Green Deal had failed to live up to expectations, arguing that its planning was flawed, its funding inefficiently delivered, and its implementation poor, all made worse by inadequate communication.

What’s the alternative?

But although few will mourn its passing, the sudden death of the Green Deal, with no replacement, has generated angry responses.

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, said:

“While the Green Deal was by no means perfect, the principle of enabling households to install energy-saving measures without paying upfront costs was sound.”

Greenpeace UK chief scientist Dr Doug Parr commented:

“Ditching measures to improve energy-wasting homes will simply leave people to pay more for their bills, with low-income families bearing the brunt of it.”

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. In 2012, 357,000 homes in England had the worst energy ratings of F and G, and more than four in 10 of those were classed as “fuel poor”.

Badly insulated housing has significant impacts on health. Earlier this year, an analysis by Friends of the Earth suggested that cold homes lead to many more people in England than Sweden ending up in hospital with breathing problems, despite England’s much milder weather.

Announcing the Green Deal’s demise, Amber Rudd promised to work with the building industry and consumer groups to create a new system. The government has also commissioned an independent review to look at standards, consumer protection and the enforcement of energy efficiency schemes, to ensure that any future arrangements provide better value-for-money for taxpayers and consumers.

At the moment, another government energy efficiency scheme – the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) remains in operation. Under the ECO the big six energy suppliers are required to help vulnerable householders save on their energy bills and carbon emissions. However this scheme is due to be wound up in 2017.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, the energy efficiency sector has been suggesting alternatives, including:

  • stamp duty and council tax rebates for homebuyers installing energy efficiency measures
  • setting aside some of the government’s projected £100bn infrastructure spending for insulating homes
  • A new ‘pay as you save’ scheme similar to the Green Deal, but one which offers more measures and is easier to administer.

In the meantime, industry, householders and environmental campaigners must wait for the government’s next move on energy efficiency.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

We’ve made some of our member briefings freely available. View a selection of our environment publications on our website.

The positive paybacks of clearing the air

Industrial chimneys

by James Carson

Two reports published last week highlight the potential benefits of policies for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

In the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and health, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that a reduction in carbon emissions could significantly cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and lung disease. The MIT researchers suggest that some carbon-cutting policies could be so effective that they would save more money than the cost of implementation.

“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study. “In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”

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Plugging in or opting out?

car exhaust

by James Carson

Visitors to the this year’s Geneva Motor Show , which closed on Sunday evening,  may have noticed some signs that the times are changing: half of the space on Renault’s large exhibition stand was dedicated to battery-powered cars; new electric vehicle models were unveiled by BMW, Volkswagen and Kia and Porsche exhibited the Panamera S, a hybrid model able to travel for 20 miles on nothing but battery power.

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Planning and housing dominate database use in February

by James Carson

february search terms
The word cloud above offers a snapshot of what our members were searching for during February 2014. As you can see, search terms such as planning, social, policy and housing were among the most frequently used ways of accessing information on our database. But other terms, such as transport, climate, leadership and employment, demonstrate the breadth of information contained in the database. Continue reading

After the floods

Floating house in Taggs Island

by Dorothy Laing

With flood levels finally subsiding, householders and businesses are faced with a mammoth clean-up operation, but with flooding likely to be a regular occurrence due to climate change  is it time to think seriously about designing and building flood resilient or amphibious housing?

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