Home truths: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Energiesprong: how a Dutch solution could improve Britain’s energy inefficient housing

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. A 2015 study by the Association for the Conservation of Energy found that the UK has among the highest rates of fuel poverty and one of the most energy inefficient housing stocks in Europe. In terms of energy efficiency, the UK housing’s walls came 7th out of the 11 countries analysed, while its roofs were ranked 8th, its floors 10th and its windows 11th.

Badly heated housing has significant impacts on health. In 2011, an analysis by Friends of the Earth highlighted the links between cold housing and poor mental and physical health:

“The main health conditions associated with cold housing are circulatory diseases, respiratory problems and mental ill-health. Other conditions influenced or exacerbated by cold housing include the common flu and cold, as well as arthritis and rheumatisms.”

However, people living in energy inefficient homes are often those least able to afford the necessary retrofits, such as insulation, new boilers and double glazing.

The rise and fall of the Green Deal

In 2013, the coalition government launched the Green Deal, a retrofitting programme that aimed to provide an affordable solution for low-income households struggling to keep their homes warm. However, it soon became clear that the Green Deal was too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer, and too hard for householders to understand. After three years of disappointing take-up, the scheme was scrapped in 2015.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, agencies supporting fuel-poor households have been trying to fill the gap. The Trussell Trust, for example, has been opening “fuel banks” in towns and cities across the UK, providing vouchers for paying gas and electricity bills.  Important as they are, these initiatives cannot take the place of housing improvements.

An energy leap forward

The demise of the Green Deal left a gap in the UK’s retrofitting market. However, a recent initiative that shares some of the features of the Green Deal has shown early promise as a possible substitute.

The Energiesprong (“energy leap”) model has its origins in the Netherlands. Energiesprong is a network of organisations committed to urban and regional development. It brokered a deal between housing associations and builders to refurbish houses to net zero energy levels. This means the homes do not consume more energy for heating, hot water and electricity than they produce. Householders commit themselves not to use any more energy than an agreed amount. If they do, additional charges apply, but these are likely to be minimal thanks to the improvements in insulation.

So far, the Dutch scheme has proved successful; the first 800 retrofitted homes have performed better than expected, producing more energy than they consume. The tenants are very satisfied with the improvements and Dutch housing associations have committed to upgrade 111,000 homes under a wider roll-out.

Energiesprong in Britain

The Energiesprong concept is now being applied in the UK, where property developers are working with local authorities and social housing providers on prototypes.

Housing associations will finance the up-front costs of the work, including external wall insulation, roofing and renewables. These will be repaid by the energy cost savings resulting from the upgrade. Unlike the Green Deal, however, the Energiesprong concept is more straightforward and easier for consumers to understand, and refurbishments can be carried out within 10 days. In the UK, between 10 and 30 homes have been undergoing improvements in pilot projects during 2016, with a target of 5000 retrofitted homes by 2018.

The concept also has something to offer owner-occupiers; in addition to improving a property’s energy efficiency, Energiesprong also delivers a better-looking exterior. As Energiesprong UK director Arno Schmickler explained to Architects’ Journal:

“We are trying to position a high-quality, desirable product, to make your neighbours jealous – that really works.”

An off-the shelf retrofit?

The Energiesprong process in the UK must overcome significant challenges before it can achieve the levels of success seen in the Netherlands. Although it has secured European Commission funding, Energiesprong UK could achieve a much greater impact with government support. In addition, changes to planning guidance will be required to enable retrofitting without the need for explicit planning permission. The UK retrofitting sector must also make technical and cultural adaptations if it is to emulate the impact of their Dutch counterparts.

But if Energiesprong takes off in the UK, Arno Schmickler foresees the day when retrofitting could become as straightforward as choosing a new sofa:

“We want to position this where you could walk into, dare I say it, Ikea, and buy your Energiesprong solution while you’re kitting out your home with new furniture. ‘That’s how easy it should become.”



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