The government has been urged to accelerate plans to retrofit buildings as a quick win to get its net-zero targets back on track.
Following the publication of the latest report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) said the government should make the built environment a priority as the UK’s second largest carbon emitter (behind transport).
The CCC, an independent statutory body set up under the Climate Change Act to advise the government, said confidence that the UK would meet its climate goals was “diminishing” and lack of detailed delivery plans in most sectors of the economy meant it would not hit its target of a 68% reduction in emissions by 2030.
But the BESA said retrofitting existing building stock with sustainable solutions could be undertaken quickly, relatively cheaply and help save owners money on soaring energy costs.
Overall greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 46% since 1990, but the CCC claimed that “credible plans” only exist for 25% of the necessary future reductions. They also pointed to gaps in delivery strategies, funding and timetables for action and results.
The CCC said: “Our confidence in the UK meeting its goals from 2030 onwards is now markedly less than it was in our previous assessment a year ago.”
The built environment was highlighted as a particular concern as it accounts for 17% of total UK emissions and needs to reduce them by 43% or the equivalent of 33 metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030 to achieve the stated goal of net zero by 2050.
The CCC’s 2023 Progress Report to Parliament said emissions from the sector fell by 15% in 2008, but since then progress had been minimal, and although residential emissions fell by 16% last year, the CCC said this was mainly due to mild winter weather and soaring energy costs forcing people to cut usage.
David Frise, chief executive officer at the Building Engineering Services Association, said: “This is a chastening report but also a useful one because it goes into the detail of where government needs to focus its efforts and where industries like ours can help … None of the findings were surprising but the scale of the retreat from net-zero targets is worrying.
“A big flaw is the failure to put net zero at the heart of the planning process and ensure all the mechanisms are in place to make a comprehensive national building retrofit programme happen at pace … Making buildings more energy efficient and climate change resilient can be done quickly, relatively cheaply and would also help to address the cost-of-living crisis.”
The CCC quoted “thousands of measures” in the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy that could make a difference, but that policymakers were avoiding the “big, impactful decisions and action” that could get the sector closer to net zero by 2050.
The government has a target to reduce energy consumption in buildings by 15% by 2030, but the CCC said there were “no guidelines or mechanisms” for delivering this aim. It also said 20% would be a better target and was affordable.
The slow pace of heat decarbonisation was harshly criticised with just 72,000 new heat pumps installed last year against a target of 130,000, which the CCC said should rise to 145,000 this year. However, it welcomed the extension of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, which it estimated would deliver around 180,000 heat pump installations by 2028. It also noted that the cost of heat pump installations was falling.
The report said the fact there is no real clarity around the role hydrogen will play in heating strategies is hampering developments and undermining confidence in the technology.
The CCC urged the government to unveil details of its Clean Heat Market Mechanism and to pass the Energy Security Bill as quickly as possible.
Frise conceded that sectors like building engineering services needed to increase their own efforts to upskill and invest in the technologies and new methods of construction needed to deliver net zero but stressed that the government must provide the policy and funding frameworks to give companies confidence about their building developments.
He said: “That will only come when companies feel they can trust that policies will be more than just short term … We know what needs to be done so now it is all about delivery, and the truth is that no government is going to deliver net zero. Delivery will come down to individual industries and economic sectors with built environment engineering playing a pivotal role.
“Government needs to pull policy levers and raise public funds but ultimately our industry, like others, will have to step up and seize the opportunities – and the biggest is retrofitting and refurbishing thousands of buildings, many of which are in dire need of an upgrade.”