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Retrofitting net zero

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Buildings account for around a quarter of the UK’s CO2 emissions – on par with emissions from surface transport. But unlike for transport, there’s no plan to get these emissions to net zero, and that’s a problem


Fifteen years ago the Blair government pledged to make all new homes zero carbon by 2016. Back then it was a pioneering measure. Gordon Brown, the chancellor, said the UK was the first country in the world to attempt it, but in 2015 the Treasury tore up the plan as part of a drive to “reduce net regulations on housebuilders”. Now, with COP26 on the horizon, the Johnson government has reinstated the zero carbon houses plan with a new deadline: all new homes must be net zero ready by 2025. 

That’s a good start, or re-start. But new homes are a small part of the problem. All told, 23 per cent of UK emissions come from buildings: houses, shops, offices, hospitals, schools, stations and multi-storey car parks. And most of those emissions come from things we do in buildings that already exist – like heating them up, lighting them, charging laptops and boiling kettles. 

Building new homes and office blocks to a net zero specification is relatively straightforward. Most of the tech and regulations have already been designed and the political will to make it happen seems to be there too. The bigger challenge: “Dealing with existing buildings,” says Ashley Bateson, head of sustainability at Hoare Lea, a building consultancy. 

The office blocks many of us work in were built decades ago. 

And our homes are often even older: 76 per cent of the houses we live in were built before 1981; 20 per cent before 1919.

Most of these homes and offices have had upgrades over the years – new insulation, double glazing, more efficient boilers. But net zero means doing all of that and more all over again: smarter heating, ventilation and lighting systems, as well as improvements to save energy and use it more efficiently. And there aren’t many regulations to make sure those changes happen in the buildings we’ve already got. 

There are rules to follow for new installations, but no imperative for owners and landlords to actually refurbish their properties. “Sometimes people will wait a long time until they do a refurbishment or they may only be refurbishing a small part of the building,” Bateson says. 

New energy efficiency rules for rented homes came into force last year. And there’s a government proposal in the works to make existing non-domestic buildings meet a new, stricter minimum energy efficiency standard by 2030. But again, Batseon says, that feels a long way off. “That’s nine years away. We should start now.” 

Here’s what he says building owners can do right now to save energy: 

– Look at getting solar panels on the roof.

– Replace gas boilers with heat pumps.

– Save energy in buildings when they aren’t in use by putting smart controls in. 

– Replace old lighting systems with LEDs.

– Maintain the equipment you’ve already got so it works efficiently. 

All of which costs money, as does switching to electric cars. That will be mandatory from 2030. With no equivalent mandate – yet – for buildings, the onus is on those of us who live and work in them to stop them pumping out emissions.


Science and Tech

F that
There’s an influential American consumer group that says: I don’t mind switching to batteries to get around as long as recharging is as easy as refilling and it doesn’t leave me out of pocket. Oh, and I drive pickups. Cue the Ford F-150 Lightning, which looks like the bestselling Ford F-150, goes faster, pulls harder, makes no noise and leaves no fumes. Oh, and its battery can power your home for three days. What’s not to like? Vox says it’s too expensive. This is not true. It starts at just under $40k, excluding tax credits for EVs, which makes it almost as affordable as any pickup on the market. Ford sold 800,000 F-series pickups last year, compared with half a million cars from Tesla’s entire product range. The Lightning could change America in a way Elon Musk can’t.


eco-nomics

Yes we Khan
Pakistan is talking up its chances of a debt-for-nature swap with overseas creditors in time for World Environment Day on 5 June. The UK, Germany, Italy and Canada are involved, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s climate advisor Malik Amin Aslam tells Bloomberg. Debt-for-nature deals are more often associated with Brazil, whose Amazonian carbon sinks are a mainstay of the global commons. In Pakistan, in return for debt relief, the Khan administration proposes 15 new national parks on 7,300 square kilometres, and a million hectares’ worth of forest restoration. The catch: Pakistan’s biggest creditors are China, Japan and the UAE, none of whom are offering debt-for-nature swaps – which, truth be told, have yet to take off. The UN says their total global value between 1985 and 2015 was a measly $2.6 billion. 


activism

Egg on Exxon 
Tomorrow, activist investors will force a vote that could put up to four green-ish new members on Exxon’s board. It probably won’t, but it might. The vote is the culmination of years of effort by the San Francisco-based Engine 1 fund, which believes Exxon’s head-in-sand approach to climate change will doom it if not changed. The firm’s share price has been doing well this year, but only after a $20 billion asset write down last year, and its first ever annual loss. It also fell out of the Dow Jones Industrial Index having halved in value since 2013, when it was still the world’s most valuable listed firm. Darren Woods, the current CEO, and Rex Tillerson, his predecessor (and Trump’s unhappy first Secretary of State), have pursued a strategy of cleaving to oil while their rivals go soft and windy. It hasn’t worked. If experience is any guide Woods will ignore his activist shareholders and pay a price in an ever-steeper cost of credit as investors look elsewhere.


policy

G6?
Last week the G7 triumphantly agreed that all its members would stop funding new coal-powered power plants overseas. Or did they? “International investments in unabated coal must stop now,” the group’s statement said. This was a lot stronger than anything the G7 said on climate on Trump’s watch, but “unabated” left wiggle room for coal plants that promise to take CO2 from their smokestacks and bury it, and Japanese officials sounded keen to wiggle. Politico said they didn’t accept the statement amounted to a total ban, and some Japanese banks would still back coal plants if they could. Beijing will have noticed, because the point of the G7 statement was to isolate and put pressure on China. More work needed on that front before COP26.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill


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