Paula Wilson, operations manager, warns that achieving net carbon zero in the built environment should also be about fire safety.
All of us now recognise that we face a climate emergency, and that action is urgently needed.
The government’s recent announcement of a £4 billion investment in a green agenda is therefore welcome.
The funding over the next few years aims to create up to a quarter of a million new green jobs. It’s part of a 10-point plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The money will be used to develop green industries such as renewable energy. It will also speed up the electrification of heat and transport, and carbon capture and storage technology.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has welcomed this commitment to a greener, fairer and more resilient economic recovery from Covid-19.
It says, however, that “major gaps remain, including embedding climate resilience in the UK’s Covid-19 recovery plans and the National Infrastructure Strategy.”
The Committee says that government must address built environment policy shortfalls if it wants to achieve net zero.
We also believe that policies for the built environment should be placed in a wider, and independent context. Importantly, a strategic framework free from short-term political expediency.
However, what’s unarguable, is that energy efficiency in buildings is a major global challenge. As we’ve said, buildings and their construction account for a significant percentage of energy use and energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually.
In tackling the climate emergency, we must first recognise that net carbon zero isn’t just about building sustainably.
It’s also about recognising that the UK has Europe’s oldest housing stock. It’s estimated that 80% of buildings that need to achieve net zero have already been built. We would argue that those buildings represent a national asset.
The ambitious net zero target isn’t going to be achieved under the government’s current policy for residential property. This focuses on things like loft and wall insulation, new windows or boilers, and one-off heat pumps.
Instead, we should be looking at models such as the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Retrofit Accelerator programmes. These have enabled investment in homes and workplaces for over a decade.
We firmly believe, and have said, that old buildings, wherever possible, should be repurposed and retrofitted.
We’ve argued that knocking own old buildings to make way for new ones is a waste of resources. It also does nothing to cut carbon emissions.
But retrofitting and repurposing old buildings also must involve a clear focus on fire safety.
Up and down the country, there are many large residential blocks that are prime candidates for carbon reducing retrofits.
But those same buildings, some built decades ago, often do not have the very latest in fire safety designed in.
We would therefore urge local and national government that, in setting priorities for net carbon zero, not to lose sight of the parallel priority of fire safety.
Old buildings can, and should, be part of our drive towards net carbon neutrality. But they should also, first and foremost, be as safe as possible.