A zero carbon UK by 2050: What it means for buildings

Paul Reeve examines the implications for the built environment of the Government’s announcement that it will pursue a legally binding target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050.

Astonishingly, today, the UK Government has agreed with the recent recommendations of the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) and intends to pursue a "zero net carbon" economy.  

With Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement today, the UK becomes the first major nation to propose this target.

It already has a 2050 target to reduce emissions by 80%, agreed by MPs under the Climate Change Act in 2008.

But this new goal, intended to become law, is much tougher.

The CCC’s report, issued at the beginning of May, points the way to achieving a remarkable 96% cut in greenhouse gases (GHG) by 2050, across the following areas of the economy:

  • Power and hydrogen
  • Buildings
  • Industry
  • Transport (all types)
  • Agriculture
  • Waste
  • F-gas emissions, and
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) removal.

Buildings: gas out, heat pumps and hydrogen in

A key target area for the CCC recommendations is buildings, where the persistent challenge is delivering low-carbon heating.

The electrification of energy, based on a massively decarbonised grid, has a central role in the CCC recommendations for the built environment.

In addition, smart building control systems (e.g. controlling EV charging and hybrid heat pumps) will be needed to help manage increased electricity demand and maximise renewable energy use.

The CCC recommendations for buildings also hinge on a massive roll-out of heat pumps, hybrid heat pumps and even hydrogen boilers in new and existing premises (supplementing or replacing gas boilers). This would be supported by urban district heating, smart storage heating and high levels of energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency alone cannot deliver a net zero carbon UK. Even so, it’s a great place to start and in many cases it is the most cost effective measure.

As such, the CCC adds that "an energy efficiency retrofit of the 29 million homes across the UK should be a national infrastructure priority." However, any planned programme will clearly need to be far more successful than the failed ‘Green Deal’ retrofit scheme.

The new recommendations are likely to provide a fillip for the ‘Each Home Counts’ report, which examined the aftermath the Green Deal and made numerous recommendations to avoid future failures in energy retrofitting.  

In the CCC report, hybrid (dual fuel) heat pumps would be used to optimise the use of renewable energy in buildings, and a 2018 government report suggests there may be lower carbon abatement costs compared to standard heat pumps.  

All this proposed activity would boost current low-carbon heating from only 4.5% of buildings to a game-changing 90% by 2050, but at a high average abatement cost of around £140/tCO2e (non-residential cost £95/tCO2e).

The total cost of installing the measures above, along with decarbonising the grid, could ramp up to tens of billions of pounds annually, though the CCC suggests that cost reductions would accompany deployment at scale, as seen for example by offshore wind.

Government policy and investment

To achieve UK-wide scale, the Government will need to provide a policy framework for building decarbonisation that includes a fully-fledged strategy for decarbonised heat in 2020.

It will also need to deliver on the ‘Future Homes’ standard (ensuring new build has low-carbon heating and excellent energy efficiency by 2025, with ambitious standards for new non-residential buildings).

Meanwhile, the Treasury will need to work with BEIS to provide not just direction, regulation and standards, but imaginative fiscal measures, including significant initial funding.

All this will need to be effectively co-ordinated at national and regional level, and regional and local planning systems would need to keep up. None of this will be easy to deliver, much less cost-effectively.

Although the CCC report relies on using feasible technology the UK is also well short of the infrastructure, supply and installation capacity needed to introduce low-carbon heating at scale.

For example, the report acknowledges the need to move from 20,000 heat pump installations annually to around a million a year (a fifty-fold increase in UK installation capacity), overcoming poor customer awareness and nascent market development on the way.

Meanwhile, building a hydrogen boiler infrastructure in 15 years, and from a standing start, is a tall order.

Interestingly, the contribution of BIM, whole-life building performance, and even the circular economy was not included in the otherwise comprehensive CCC report, but these processes and approaches could also help to unlock the type of carbon reductions needed in the years ahead.

As such, the CCC’s report also recommends that the Government deploys the Construction Sector Deal to help tackle major ‘low carbon’ (along with ventilation and thermal comfort) skills gaps across building design, construction and installation.

Yet the risk is all too apparent that the UK could forge on with ‘sub-optimal installation at scale’. Going forward, the quality of contractors, products, design and systems will be everything.  

No-one should expect the feat of resolving the UK’s carbon footprint for good to be anything other than both hugely challenging and costly. However, against this is the enormous cost of climate inaction and potentially, there are phenomenal opportunities for UK businesses and the economy.

But after all the statements of intent, legislation and policies, what we will need to see soon is action.

  • Paul Reeve CEnv is Director of CSR at the ECA, an association for the electrotechnical and engineering services industry.

Image supplied by ECA

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