The UK’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050 means we will all have to change some aspects of our lives for good. Whether it is giving up petrol and diesel cars, switching to renewable energy or making changes to our homes and offices, everyone will need to do their bit.
ELIMINATING EMISSIONS BY 2050
The government’s long-awaited net zero strategy sets out how the UK plans to halve emissions in little over a decade and eliminate them by 2050. Introducing the strategy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims “the United Kingdom is not afraid to lead the charge towards global net zero because history has never been made by those who sit at the back of the class hoping not to be called on.”
Leading this charge will involve decarbonising our power sector by 2035, phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 and decarbonising the way we heat and power our homes.
The UK has around 30 million buildings, including some of the oldest building stock in Europe, with 20 per cent of homes built before 1919. They are responsible for 17 per cent of our national emissions. Retrofitting them with better insulation, low-carbon heat and clean power sources is an essential part of the country’s journey to net zero.
Newly constructed buildings are far more energy efficient, but 80 per cent of the UK’s 2050 building stock already exists, hence the need for some large-scale retrofitting. A national retrofit programme has the potential to reduce household energy bills by up to £430 a year and create 500,000 green jobs.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has declared a “retrofit revolution” in the capital to upgrade ageing homes so that social housing landlords can cut carbon emissions and improve the cold, damp housing stock currently on offer.
He hopes the move will also help tackle growing fuel poverty. In London 11.4 per cent of households are fuel poor, in joint place with the West Midlands. Only the North West is worse, with 12.1 per cent of households affected by fuel poverty, according to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.
HOW CAN THE UK REACH ITS RETROFITTING GOALS?
So what does retrofitting actually involve? Modifications to existing buildings to make them more energy efficient can range from small additions to big building projects. From switching to energy-saving lightbulbs to cavity wall insulation, from installing smart meters to putting solar panels on the roof, the possibilities are endless.
One of the government’s central policies is to phase out natural gas boilers in homes and buildings by 2035 at the latest. It plans to support 600,000 heat pump installations a year by 2028, driving down the cost so that they are on a par with traditional gas boilers.
But who is going to carry out all this work? A report by the Green Finance Institute and Bankers for Net Zero, Tooling Up the Green Homes Industry, estimated that to reach net zero by 2050, an estimated 29 million existing homes will need to be retrofitted. That means a million homes a year, every year until 2050, will have to be modified.
That is an enormous task. The report revealed that the majority of companies which carry out this type of work are small and medium-sized businesses. The UK retrofit industry is relatively fragmented compared with some European countries and it is hard to find retrofit managers who can create end-to-end propositions for clients.
One organisation hoping to change this is not-for-profit cooperative RetrofitWorks. Its members include contractors, tradespeople and community groups. The cooperative offers homeowners a Retrofit Coordinator who assesses their house, produces a plan to make it more energy efficient, then works with contractors from the cooperative to oversee the process.
But it is not just housing stock that needs some TLC. Non-domestic building stock currently represents 23 per cent of UK built environment emissions, most of which is caused by fossil fuel heating systems. Heat pumps form a big part of the solution here. The UK Green Building Council’s Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap advises that 70 per cent of all non-domestic buildings should have heat pump systems by 2045 to reach net zero goals.
THERE’S HOPE FOR THE UK’S BUILDING STOCK
The good news is that retrofit solutions already exist. Organisations such as LETI, a network for built environment professionals in London, have published a Climate Emergency Retrofit Guide. Then there is the EnerPHit standard, which certifies retrofits to the high level required by the Passive House Standard. The Association for Environment Conscious Building also has a Retrofit Standard.
We already have the knowhow, the tools and the certification systems to retrofit the UK’s building stock. What we lack is a clear national retrofit strategy from the government that sets out long-term funding and political commitment to do this. The construction industry and consumers need to know that retrofitting is not just the latest trend, soon to be forgotten: it is the key to unlocking our ability to reach net zero by 2050.