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UK parties campaign to decarbonise buildings – even the builders

jeremy corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Labour Party. Photo: Chatham House

UNITED KINGDOM: In the midst of a general election, and following declarations of a climate emergency by many parts of the country including by the UK Parliament, UK political parties are competing on building efficiency.

The Labour Party has pledged to introduce tough standards forcing housebuilders to make new properties zero carbon within three years as part of a push for zero carbon by 2030.

It also wants to set up a £250 billion (A$470 billion) “Warm Homes for All” program to install loft insulation, double glazing and green technology in almost all of the country’s 27 million homes by 2030.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn said this would create 450,000 jobs and cut carbon emissions by 10 per cent while only costing central government £60 billion because most funding would come from savings on energy bills.

The Liberal Democrats have said they’d invest £15 billion to upgrade energy efficiency in 26 million homes by 2025, predominantly through insulation and new heating systems.

The Green Party wants to spend £100 billion a year on tackling the climate emergency by borrowing £91.2 billion a year, with the remaining £9 billion sourced from tax changes.

It also wants to make the country carbon neutral by 2030 by building 100,000 energy efficient homes each year, “revolutionising” transport infrastructure, using more renewable energy and creating “hundreds of thousands of jobs” for workers who would insulate homes.

The Conservatives have yet to publish their plans for decarbonising the country, and the Brexit Party is notoriously climate sceptic.

The UK is falling behind its Paris targets

A majority of Brits – 56 per cent – support a 2030 carbon neutral goal, according to a recent poll by YouGov, but the country as a whole is falling behind its Paris agreement targets – as are 19 of the world’s 20 biggest economies, according to climate scientists.

The UK must cut emissions to 143 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030, but under its current emissions target it will still be producing 352 million tonnes by then. The Paris agreement is supposed to keep global warming to as close to 1.5C as possible, beyond which the consequences are expected to become more and more devastating.

Training and new techniques needed

But a leading trade body representing builders says that election promises on zero carbon mean nothing unless government and the construction industry commit to radical change.

With construction directly influencing 47 per cent of UK carbon emissions and 61 per cent of UK waste, The National Federation of Builders’ major contractors group’s Transforming Construction for a Low Carbon Future report said any future government must transform the sector with training and new techniques or the country will miss all and any zero carbon ambitions.

Its chair, Nick Sangwin, said the report was “not a document to sit on shelves gathering dust, it is designed to galvanise the sector into action, to see the opportunities and to lead the way towards zero carbon by 2050”.

Mr Sangwin’s colleague Mark Wakeford called on the next government to make this a firm priority.

“The year 2050 might seem a long time away but it’s really not much time to radically change our industry,” Mr Wakeford said.

“Anyone still operating the same way as they are today in 20 years’ time will be lucky to still be in business.

“To make this happen, domestic housing requires a government spend of £15 billion a year, industrial and commercial property and infrastructure requires up to £10 billion a year, flood defences £1 billion a year, and the power sector £20 billion a year.”

He said it was critical that industry and government bring together developments in skills, procurement, design, products and materials, transport and other sectors.

Energy efficiency falling behind

They’re not wrong. The UK like most other parts of the world needs to redouble our efforts to use less energy in buildings because the present trend is going the wrong way. Around the world, the rate of improvement in primary energy intensity – a measure of energy use against productivity – slowed last year for the third year in a row to just 1.2 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest annual report on energy efficiency.

Primary energy intensity is now well below the three per cent minimum needed to achieve global climate and energy goals. Reaching three per cent over that period could have generated a further US$2.6 trillion (A$3.8 trillion) of economic output for the same amount of energy.

This is possible, according to Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director launching Energy Efficiency 2019, “through the use of existing technologies and cost-effective investments. There is no excuse for inaction”.

The trillions of extra dollars possible shows the value of energy efficiency. It’s not an abstract notion but a more effective strategy than investing in renewable energy.

The recent deceleration in efficiency progress is caused by a mixture of social and economic trends, plus factors such as extreme weather. Policy measures and investment are also failing to keep pace with rising energy demand, the report says.

New ways of policy thinking that move beyond traditional approaches are required. Amongst these are digital interconnections between buildings, appliances, equipment and transport systems that enable the benefits of energy efficiency to be measured and valued more quickly and accurately.

David Thorpe is the author of Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference, Energy Management in Buildings and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

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