Oct 01, 2014

Zero carbon targets are missing the point

Zero carbon – what does it actually mean? For those working in construction the definition and response will be crucial in shaping the sector for the coming generation.

In 2006 the UK Government published a target for all new homes to be ‘zero carbon’ by 2016. In effect this means a gradually increasing standard to improve energy efficiency and reducing carbon in use. Given regulation will not cover unregulated energy coming from household appliances and technology including fridges, computers, and televisions etc. the label of ‘zero carbon’ is misleading, with the ‘low carbon or low energy’ approach being a more  pragmatic and realistic  standard for the industry to work to.

Where are we now?

As part of its drive to reduce red tape as part of the Housing Standards Review, the UK Government introduced Part L of the Building Regulations, while winding down the Code for Sustainable Homes. This should make it simpler for construction companies to achieve energy and carbon performance standards and will hopefully encourage more building.

A reduction of greenhouse emissions is a national priority – the UK Government has committed to an 80% reduction by 2050.

There is also a further difference in approach across Great Britain. While the target in England is for zero carbon in Scotland the original approach looks towards ‘net carbon’ by 2030 subject to viability which would appear more pragmatic, with a realistic timeline. The viability question is important, as we must balance the challenges of delivering more new homes, in an affordable way and to a high level of quality – all against a backdrop of energy savings and progressively lower emissions.

What about the incentives?

For home buyers, incentivising low carbon, energy efficient building could help create demand. For example properties with lower stamp duty, or with reduced council tax rates for new homes, built to high energy-efficiency standards and low emissions levels - compared to second hand stock - would be cheaper to run and more attractive places to live, potentially yielding a higher value. The industry will continue to drive down costs, but it is highly unlikely these will ever reach a level which triggers market demand, without fiscal support. This dynamic is occurring within commercial buildings where high energy and carbon performance standards offer reduced rates for the more energy/carbon efficient designs and are often easier to sell or rent, while addressing corporate responsibilities .

Through a combination of using fabric first design, simple renewable systems and using construction methods such as timber frame and offsite manufacturing, we will be well placed to drive change from within the sector, however we would advocate fiscal support to drive change in the consumer, lender and valuator communities, where low energy, low carbon homes are valued higher than second hand home, commanding a premium in the market.

Looking to the future

Ultimately, the most effective agent of change will be the consumer. Turning low energy low carbon homes into a compelling value proposition, with the support of government, industry, and key stakeholders, has the potential to create a market opportunity rather than a regulatory threat. Building that case is already under way through various initiatives and public-private partnerships including the 2016 Zero Carbon Taskforce, Zero Carbon Hub and NHBC Foundation. The more which can be done to support this, the better.

Energy efficient construction can and does drive value through the whole supply chain and to the customer. The opportunity is for the construction industry and government to lead the way in tackling environmental challenges from this approach to ensure the future of both the industry and the environment.

Homes For Scotland Home Builders Federation National House-Building Council Royal Institute of British Architects Structural Timber Association Constructionline British Board of Agrement Wood Campus Build Off Site Building Research Establishment WOOD FOR GOOD

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