After crisis, we need a climate-resilient recovery

Patrice Cairns

AT present, homes are not only shelter but also for many a place of work, of social space and of respite. The intrinsic link between wellbeing and improved indoor health is more apparent and appreciated than ever before. However, if we spend more time at home, we will typically of course use more energy.

Building contribute significantly to energy use and carbon emissions, yet progress in the decarbonisation of buildings has been limited and the challenge going forward even greater. As new housing accounts for only 1-2 percent of total UK building stock each year, addressing the energy efficiency of existing housing is crucial on the path to achieving net zero ambitions.

Given that approximately 15 per cent of the UK's total emissions come from heating homes alone, an overhaul of the energy performance of existing housing stock is required. Northern Ireland's unique context, particularly in energy, will require further innovation and a strategic joined up approach. While decarbonisation of the heat network remains one the toughest challenges, an energy efficient building fabric is needed to be both effective in cost savings and emissions reductions.

This requires a significant scaling up of retrofitting homes, which not only provides an opportunity to achieve both operational carbon and significant embodied carbon savings, through re-use rather than re-build, but can improve indoor conditions and create skilled jobs. The task is formidable, and immediate action is needed to close the widening gap.

In Northern Ireland, the absence of climate change legislation - though promised in New Decade, New Approach - the lack of clear regulatory drivers such as ambitious building regulations which account for embodied carbon and Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES), and the lack of financial incentives and support to encourage all households to retrofit, creates concern that existing polices will not be enough to deliver the level of carbon reduction required.

Rics published a paper earlier this year calling on UK Government to make a step-change in policies for decarbonising existing housing. ‘Retrofitting to decarbonise UK existing housing stock' provides a blueprint for Government to take forward as part of their resilient recovery from Covid-19.

The paper highlights how government incentives can promote a positive shift, by encouraging and supporting more people to consider making their homes energy efficient. The suite of policy recommendations is encapsulated in a package of regulatory measures, industry standards and property data, fiscal levers and market insight.

UK government endorsing Rics' call to reduce the VAT for home repairs, maintenance and improvement work would be a swift step in the right direction. A uniform reduction to 5 percent across the regime could provide a much-needed boost in the adoption of retrofitting measures being taken in tandem with home improvement upgrades.

Although the incentive will carry an initial cost, it will be at least in part offset by the benefits associated with job creation, which will be much needed in the wake of the likely rise in unemployment as the furlough scheme begins to unwind.

While the energy efficiency policy route remains uncertain both at a Northern Ireland and UK level, the NI Executive must use this opportunity to review their existing policies, working with the expertise of industry, and implement a holistic approach to retrofitting. The NI Executive committing to a more sustainable stock of housing provides an opportunity both to kick start business activity and focus on the green agenda.

A scaled up retrofit programme of existing housing stock would be an integral stimulus to a green, and climate-resilient recovery from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Designating the energy efficiency of Northern Ireland's building stock as a regional infrastructure priority, with appropriate long-term investment to fill the gap, would be a driver in the delivery of the required scale of retrofit.

Upskilling and supporting the pipeline of green skills, within the built environment and including the Proptech sector, to deliver improvements in energy efficiency would provide further socio-economic stimulus. When the immediate crisis has passed action on this needs to be taken.

:: Dr Patrice Cairns is policy manager at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics), which in Northern Ireland represents 4,000 chartered and associate surveyors, trainees and students

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