The year ahead is likely to see a huge shift in policy for greening the UK’s housing stock. Dr Jonathan Marshall runs down what milestones are ahead
Few sources of carbon emissions are in need of stronger action than those emanating from our homes, from the energy consumed in building new houses to that used to keep us warm and entertained.
“The nation’s housing stock produced three million more tonnes of CO2 in 2019 than in 2014”
2021 is set to bring a number of plans and pledges to tackle these, both in order to meet our domestic climate targets and to set an example to the rest of the world before hosting the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November.
As well as looking good on the global stage, climate proofing our homes offers the government an opportunity to not only boost living conditions and cut energy bills for millions of families, but to create hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country at the same time.
Emissions from our homes, mainly heating rooms, account for 15% of the national total. The trend is also going the wrong way. The nation’s housing stock produced three million more tonnes of CO2 in 2019 than in 2014.
National lockdowns only highlight the problems we face. All of our bills go up as we spend more time at home, but families living in leakier houses will see monthly costs jump by £49 more than those in more energy-efficient properties, recent Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) research has found.
“Scotland is ahead of the pack with proposed mandatory minimum efficiency standards from 2024. England and Wales remain further behind, currently on a sluggish 2035 timeline”
2021, though, brings some hope that things are starting to change.
New regulations coming this year will see a date from which new homes in England will no longer connected to the gas grid – a small but vital first step. This was initially proposed for 2025 but can now be expected in 2023 – there is no real reason for the extra delay.
This is accompanied by new construction standards to ensure that more heat stays in our homes rather than leaking through walls, windows and roofs. The government has proposed a much-needed uptick on the status quo, but one that unfortunately does not go far enough.
Next is dealing with existing homes. Scotland is ahead of the pack with proposed mandatory minimum efficiency standards from 2024. England and Wales remain further behind, currently on a sluggish 2035 timeline to upgrade homes to an energy performance certificate (EPC) C rating, although fortunately there are signs this target will be sped up.
Recently announced plans to ensure privately rented properties – making up 19% of the total stock – meet EPC C standards by 2025 for new rentals and 2028 for all rentals will boost the climate credentials of close to four million homes, many of which are in greatest need of upgrading.
For homeowners, the slow-starting Green Homes Grant has been extended for another year. Wildly oversubscribed and tarnished with teething problems, getting this right is key to tackling owner-occupied properties.
The days of the humble gas boiler are also coming to an end. Polluting and prone to breaking at the worst possible moments, boilers will start to be replaced by electric heat pumps; first in new builds, then up to the prime minister’s target of 600,000 installations per year by 2028 and then snowballing beyond the one million per year mark shortly afterwards.
And while heat pumps are overwhelmingly expected to provide the main source of home heat in decades to come, back-up options are still being investigated. Trials to blend hydrogen into the gas grid have kicked off, with a ‘hydrogen village’ set up near Newcastle, while an incoming Green Gas Levy will see biomethane added to the gas network.
“Later this year we will see the delayed Spending Review, bringing with it multiyear backing for home upgrades”
All positive, but there remains much more to do.
The first few months of 2021 will bring the long-awaited Heat and Buildings Decarbonisation Strategy, a document tasked with taking some big decisions and setting out a roadmap to carbon-neutral homes.
It is vital that this ramps up ambition on current proposals and takes a much-needed call on the extent to which heat pumps or hydrogen will be used to keep us warm.
Next comes the Budget, in which funding to meet manifesto pledges on energy efficiency is expected. The government’s new national infrastructure bank is also due to launch and will likely bring with it a mission to support upgrades to our leaky homes – one of the UK’s largest infrastructure challenges.
Later this year we will see the delayed Spending Review, bringing with it multiyear backing for home upgrades; the Treasury review into net zero will look at how costs and benefits of the transition can be fairly managed; then the flagship Net Zero Roadmap ahead of COP26, which should be an economy-wide plan to getting to carbon neutrality.
Between them, these plans, proposals and schemes will give Britain’s homes a well-deserved boost, cutting energy bills and slashing emissions. This year will be like no other for climate policy, and thankfully, for there is little time to waste.
Dr Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis, Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit