UK emissions reduction – are we heading in the right direction?

By Lydia Newman

In July, separate reports were assembled by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEIS) which analysed the progress towards the ambitious 2050 net-zero target – both made for interesting reading. Whilst the reports acknowledged previous progress, they also highlighted a multitude of inadequate achievements towards the UK’s target.

Steps towards Net Zero

Photo by Arturo Castaneyra on Unslpash

Where do we stand globally, is progress occurring?

In 2018 greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 2% in the European Union, unfortunately elsewhere in the world this is not the case. In China for example, there was an increase of 2.2%, the USA’s emissions increased by 2.6, India’s rose by 7%, and the rest of the world has increased 1.7% in emissions.

There were 25 headline policies established 1 year ago to aid the progression to meet our target of net-zero, however, only one stands fully complete and ten policies fail to exemplify even partial progress.

What has been accomplished so far? 

In 2018 emissions fell by 2% in the UK and the economy grew 1%. To put this in a broader perspective, emissions between 1990 to 2018 have fallen by 40% in the UK, while the economy grew 75%. As emissions are cut and the economy grows, the UK sets a powerful international example. In addition, it has been demonstrated globally that every year since 2011 the carbon intensity of energy has improved.

What are we lacking specifically in the building sector? 

The report by BEIS identified that the building sector lacked secure regulations, free from loopholes that developers are currently using to avoid improving energy performance. It noted that some developers have found ways to define the commencing date of their project as prior to the change in building regulations, therefore many new developments are built to old standards. This is inadmissible in our current situation. The UK needs to be a role model and demonstrate ‘world-leading’ energy efficiency standards in housing. The Government is currently consulting on a new future home standard and must close any loopholes by 2025.

The report noted it is unfair that people who purchase homes are often misled in terms of overstated energy performance. This is because older Energy Performance Certificates  are based on outdated modelling methodology. Energy assessors have long been aware that when re-assessing buildings to the current standard, it is common that a lower rating is achieved than the original assessment.

Despite increased energy efficiency requirements, emissions were lower in buildings in 2015 than they are now. And since insulation programmes ended in 2012 there has been a 95% decrease in the rate of insulation installed. The building sector is lacking policies to achieve the Clean Growth Strategy’s aspirations for energy efficiency and as a result, the UK, energy performance improvements requires an increase of a factor of seven in its average annual rate. The 2018 statistics for retrofit insulation clearly show the problem:

  • The 2018 indicator suggested 545,000 lofts should be insulated per year whereas  only 43,000 have been completed.
  • 200,000 cavity walls per year should be insulated whereas only 82,000 were completed.
  • 90,000 solid walls were supposed to be insulated however only 18,000 were completed

Do 2018 indicators seem too ambitious to you?

Perhaps the seriousness of these operations have not yet been emphasised enough to homeowners or businesses. Net-zero will not be achievable unless everyone is open to positive change in their homes.

Progress has been made with heat pump installation at 22,000, however by 2020 more than 30,000 must be in place to reach targets. The Low carbon heat demand has exceeded the expected 6% heat demand at 8.5%. This is due to the inclusion of reversible air-to-air heat pumps (RAAHP) in commercial buildings.It is clear from this that heat pump sales for residential buildings must be rapidly increased.

What must be prioritised?

It has been calculated that 15MtCO2e per year is the annual rate of reduction required for net-zero to be accomplished. This is a very demanding target, 30% higher than achieved on average since 1990.

In the building sector, it is essential that a low carbon heat strategy is implemented. It is advised that all new heating systems are to be low carbon from 2035 and that energy efficiency of all buildings must be strengthened with new policies and supported by new build standards. It is also important that performance and compliance gaps are closed.

What is the UK’s next step? 

Progress can be ultimately refocused by strengthening policies and establishing clear trajectories, together with a cohesive framework.

Between now and 2022 mandatory training development must be underway for trades who will be retrofitting energy performance improvement measures to existing buildings to meet the net-zero target (e.g. heat pump installation or educating how to identify which products are most energy efficient). The UK must make a decision regarding the future of the gas grid and how hydrogen and electrification for heating will be balanced by the mid 2020s.

Current performance reporting is inaccurate and does not reflect real world performance and a certification that reflects actual performance (rather than just its design intention) will be developed between 2020 and 2022.

Next year, the UN Climate Summit will take place and this is expected to be co-hosted by Italy and the UK. In order to be a compelling host, it is essential that a coherent national policy package is delivered and imperative that once policies are established with a step by step guide, that these are implemented immediately – in the drive towards net-zero, there is no longer time to waste.