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Gas guzzlers

Gas guzzlers

In a climate and energy crisis, the UK’s leaky, old housing stock is an extravagance neither people nor the planet can afford.

Ugbrooke House is a 900-year-old, grade I listed stately home in Devon that functions as a wedding venue and was recently featured on Channel 5’s Sally Lindsay’s Posh Sleepover. It’s also, according to a database of millions of dwellings, the biggest domestic CO2 emitter in England and Wales.

The database estimates that Ugbrooke House emits 888 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – nearly 400 times as much as a moderately busy Range Rover SDV6. Dozens more stately homes emit hundreds of tonnes of CO2 a year, and the top 100 most-polluting properties on the list, taken together, have the potential to emit as much as the carbon footprint of 20,000 transatlantic flight tickets or 5,600 average British homes.

Tortoise analysed publicly available data for around 15 million domestic properties in England and Wales that have received “Energy Performance Certificate” (EPC) assessments in the past ten years. These assessments do not necessarily correlate to actual energy usage, but they point to one safe conclusion: homes have the potential to generate huge amounts of pollution. They bring new meaning to gas guzzling. 

Like Ugbrooke House, most of the top 100 are listed stately homes or historic mansions. They include:

  • Cornbury Park, a grade I listed country mansion located on a former royal hunting estate in Oxfordshire, owned by the recently-retired hereditary peer Lord Rotherwick (210 tonnes CO2 per year, approx).
  • Eggleston Hall, a grade II* listed country house that was the backdrop to ITV’s Ladette to Lady series (197 tonnes approx). 
  • Lemmington Hall, a grade II* listed 18th-century mansion, which is currently a family home but will soon become a wedding venue (309 tonnes approx).
  • Cilwendeg Mansion, a grade II listed mansion built in the 18th century in Pembrokeshire, which is run as a luxury events venue (160 tonnes approx).

While most of the properties at the upper end are historic buildings, a large Salvation Army hostel for the homeless based in Hull also made the top 100. A spokesperson for the Salvation Army said that reducing its footprint was a “significant challenge” since it’s lived in by 100 people facing homelessness and the charity lacks long-term funding.

Most properties in the top 100 had outdated and carbon-intensive heating systems at the time they were assessed, with 62 using oil-powered heating.

When reached for comment, owners of several of the properties said they’ve made changes since the assessments to improve energy efficiency, including installing solar panels, high-efficiency boilers, new heat pumps, and more efficient lightbulbs, as well as draught-proofing doors and windows.

At the time of Ugbrooke House’s most recent estimate in 2016, the home had no known insulation in its floors, walls or roof, but Alexander Clifford – the current custodian of his family’s seat at Ugbrooke and eldest son of the current Baron Clifford of Chudleigh – said he has since installed 50-watt solar panels and a hydroelectric power system, added more roof insulation and replaced older, less efficient light bulbs.

The insulation, in particular, will make a difference. But the data still raises the question whether enough is being done to prevent potentially highly-polluting properties burning through large amounts of energy. 

Red Tape

Of the 100 most polluting buildings, 56 are grade II listed and 11 are grade I listed. Many owners said the high costs and red tape associated with altering a listed property hold back improvements.

Aidan Ruff, who owns and lives in Lemmington Hall, said many owners of historic buildings feel that there is a disconnect between the priorities of English Heritage and the requirements of energy efficiency. “Simply wanting to replace single glazed windows with ultra-slim double-glazed units can create an enormous battle between heritage and energy efficiency requirements,” he said.

William Gray, who owns and lives in Eggleston Hall, said he would “happily” fit double glazing but is prohibited by listed building legislation, while Clifford said he was unable to install a wood chip boiler.

“Especially with buildings that are grade I and II listed, it’s very hard to make changes,” Clifford said. “You have many people in these country estates who care deeply about the environment and would love to do more, but the restrictions hold them back.”

The UK has the oldest and most inefficient housing stock in Europe, with a fifth of all homes built over a century ago. Almost half a million buildings are listed, meaning owners need to apply for Listed Building Consent for most types of structural work.

Making houses greener – particularly old ones – is expensive but essential to bringing down energy consumption. Together, buildings in the UK account for 17 per cent of the country’s emissions and 40 per cent of its energy consumption. There’s no path to net zero without shrinking their footprint. 

What data did we use?

  • Data on domestic properties is made public when they get an EPC, which is needed to sell or rent a home or to obtain an eco-assessment for any other purpose.
  • There is missing data. Those we talked to got an EPC for a sale, rental or eco-assessment, but the footprint for many properties remains hidden. There is no data from the past ten years, for example, for Chequers – the Prime Minister’s 16th century country mansion – or for the Royal palaces.
  • The data is imperfect. There is no concrete information on exactly how much pollution each property produces. Instead, assessors generate estimates of the amount of carbon dioxide each property would make based on a number of factors like floor space, window variety, the amount of insulation and the type of heating used. They make assumptions about average use of heating and space. Owners of several of the properties said they were not heated on a regular basis, which could lead to overestimates.
  • Aspects of EPC data can be overly simplistic. Some owners said the assessments underplayed the level of insulation provided by thick walls.

Slow & inefficient transition

Episode two of our myth-busting new podcast series with the Centre for Net Zero and Octopus Energy is available to listen to now. This week, can a country run on 100 per cent renewables?


eco-nomics

A bid to save nature
Cutting emissions is only part of the battle for a liveable planet. Delegates at a UN conference in Geneva have spent the last X days trying to agree how to protect habitats and ecosystems at risk of extinction. 200 countries are expected to finally agree on steps to protect 30 per cent of global biodiversity by 2030 – under terms expected to be finally agreed at the Cop15 UN summit on biodiversity in Kunming, China, which is finally taking place in August after two years of delay. The plan requires ending the estimated $1.8 trillion-worth of  subsidies every year for activities in agriculture or fossil fuel extraction that destroy nature, and moving money towards projects that can protect it.


nature

Conger eek!
A large Antarctic ice shelf has disintegrated following a record heatwave in the region and scientists are investigating whether the two events are linked. The collapse of the Conger ice shelf, equivalent in area to Rome, is significant not for the amount of ice lost (collapses are a natural part of the Antarctic snow cycle) but rather for its location. The East Antarctic ice sheet was considered by scientists to be a “massive, high, dry, cold and immovable ice cube,” glaciologist Peter Neff tells the Guardian. But three separate “calving” events this month have thrown a big question mark over the sheet’s long-term stability. Ice shelves act like levees, offering protection from warm winds and holding back ice and snow that would otherwise flow into the ocean and cause sea levels to rise. The collapse of Conger is the most dramatic calving to have happened in the area since 2002. Even if the heatwave isn’t found to be to blame, the proximity of these two events should be taken as a stern warning that tipping points are happening now.


policy

Gassy mines
Coal mining accounted for a larger share of global methane emissions last year than either oil or gas extraction. Mine-level data from Global Energy Monitor shows that operating coal mines emitted 52.3 million tonnes of methane in 2021 – 10 million tonnes more than IEA estimates. China accounted for 73 per cent of the total, with Poland, Indonesia and Russia all running high in the rankings. Tackling methane leakage is widely recognised as one of the best ways to limit global temperature rise in the near term, and over 100 countries last year signed a pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 (China and Russia weren’t among them). If those countries are serious about that goal they should start with retiring the deepest, dirtiest mines which can produce up to 67 times more methane than those with similar productivity.


activism and engagement

Stop the stink
Seven water companies in England and Wales dumped untreated sewage into rivers and the sea 3,000 times between 2017 and 2021. According to a decision by the High Court in England last year this is, despite the risks to human and ecosystem health, just fine – the court decided companies couldn’t be privately sued in the civil courts by the likes of landowners, swimming clubs or fishermen for doing so. Legal campaigners including the Good Law Project, Environmental Law Foundation and other non-profits appear today in the Court of Appeal to give evidence challenging this decision. With the Environment Agency, which is meant to deter companies from harming the environment, in a chronically underfunded state, it’s one of the few avenues for challenging such action left.

Thanks for reading.

Kim Darrah
@kimgidarrah


Additional reporting by Katie Riley, Ellen Halliday and Barney Macintyre. Edited by Giles Whittell.


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