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Significant investments and policy support for low-carbon housing is crucial for the UK’s move to net zero. Photo: Pixabay

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Making the transition to net zero is not a simple process. Many financial commitments and behavioural changes are needed, but these will certainly make great strides towards meeting climate change goals.

In line with climate science, the UK has pledged to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) have estimated that in order to achieve this, the UK needs to start investing at least £50 billion per year in low-carbon projects, no later than the end of the 2020s. Such projects would work towards helping existing industries transition as well as developing new industries and technologies. 

However, in 2020, only 20% of the CCC’s estimation was invested in net zero initiatives.

While an additional £40 billion per annum appears to be a massive sum of money, research has shown that the benefits far outweigh the costs.

According to the CCC, this extra investment will be offset by reduced day-to-day spending by 2030. Failing to take action now and meet the net zero target by 2050 will be expensive, estimated to be around 30 times the cost necessary to limit global warming in the first place.

Implementing net zero policies with speed are crucial to the net zero goal, which is also predicted to have positive results for the UK economy and jobs. An economy can still flourish while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions, demonstrated by the UK itself. Between 1990 and 2019, GDP grew by 75% while emissions fell by 43%. This shows that the country is on the right track, but much still needs to be done to meet the 2050 deadline.

The low-carbon and renewable energy economy is a huge growth opportunity in the UK, valued at £46.7 billion in 2018 after increasing by 15% in three years. It is predicted to continue expanding rapidly, the 2020 Ten Point Plan and Energy White Paper both estimating that 250,000 sector-relevant jobs could be supported by 2030.

One sector that has been actively making the transition to net zero is residential building construction. The government has set out its Future Homes and Buildings Standard, which requires all new build homes from 2025 onwards to produce 75-80% less carbon emissions than current homes and eventually become net zero.

Statistics show that housing in the UK is largely draughty and energy inefficient, with 90% of the country’s 29 million homes requiring upgrades. Low-carbon homes have been conceptualised and sporadically built for around 20 years, but the realisation of these projects have failed to enter the mainstream, until now.

Beyond climate change, the recent cost-of-living crisis and growing problem of fuel poverty has also increased interest in low-carbon buildings. If homes were built with energy efficiency in consideration, such as implementing good wall and window insulation and airtightness, residents could save hundreds of pounds on energy bills.

Zero-carbon homes theoretically produce zero or even negative carbon emissions by maximising energy efficiency and using renewable energy sources. A popular approach is the ‘Passivhaus’ design, which aims to create sustainable housing that allows comfortable temperatures to be maintained with minimal energy use. By using passive energy sources such as sunlight, human and appliance generated heat, need for additional space heating is drastically reduced.

Over the past few years, innovative examples of low-carbon housing have been built across the UK, with plans for 30,000 new homes designed to meet Passivhaus targets.

This month, the London home of the late sustainable designer and pioneer for environmentally friendly living, Max Fordham, became the first building in the UK to achieve net zero carbon in its construction and operation. The house uses materials of concrete with low-carbon cement replacement, woodfibre insulation and cork flooring. Investment in carbon offsetting schemes accounted for the emissions produced during the construction process. Impressively, the home operates at net zero, sourcing its energy from renewables and onsite generation by solar panels. In fact, the building’s energy consumption is 20% lower than the minimum requirement to have net zero carbon status. 

60 low-energy homes were completed in Leeds in 2021, designed to use 10 times less energy than a conventional house. Featuring airtight timber panels with wood-fire insulation, triple-glazed windows and solar panels, the heating needs for these homes are low to the extent that they create excess energy, which can be fed back into the local power grid and used to charge electric cars. 

Exeter City Living have been working with the council to build and improve zero-carbon homes since 2008, building over 200 operational council houses meeting the Passivhaus low energy standard and planning 1000 more. Now on the seventh generation of their low-energy house design, the project has proven to be extremely successful, each house being so thermally efficient that 60% of residents do not ever have to turn on their heating.

Numerous other localities have been investing in and building large-scale low-carbon housing projects. Passivhaus Trust, which trains designers, consultants and tradespeople to build to the Passivhaus standards, have reported a 60% rise in membership in a single year, suggesting that the industry is becoming increasingly motivated to pursue net zero objectives.

In addition to these efforts to make the industry and its products more sustainable, the government needs to implement a strong policy framework that adequately supports funding and skills training. The Future Homes and Buildings Standard is a step in the right direction, however net zero transformations also need to take place in other sectors, especially energy, for low-carbon housing to truly be successful. 

The UK will need to make significant financial commitments in the upcoming years, but when the social, economic and environmental benefits are so vast, it is an essential and worthy investment to be made.

Mileson Qiang Guo is an entrepreneur and investor, and the founder of The Institute for Emerging Technologies and Social Impact (ITSI). He founded ITSI to foster debate and discussion about the social impact of emerging technologies amongst industry pioneers and policy leaders. The Institute aims to cultivate original research, share ideas and connect people with the shared goal of harnessing technology for the greatest social and economic benefit.

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