Hope and disappointment seem often to go hand in hand when it comes to striving for net zero, and over the last few weeks we at Green Building Design have experienced both.
Hope first:an exceptional HertfordshireZero Carbon Conference, where sustainability presentations and discussions, and low-carbon products and services, all came together to paint a picture of genuine optimism and opportunity.
Yet all this came in the wake of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s back pedalling on his net zero commitments recently.
Here’s why we wish Rishi had been at the Conference before he said what he said - and what he might have learned from us and others by being there.
Wrong on fossil fuel heating
Most disappointing for us was the nine-year delay in the ban on new fossil fuel heating for off-gas-grid homes, pushing the deadline out to 2035.
It’s important to understand that this decision isn’t what it seems. It doesn’t simply miss a chance to reduce carbon emissions from many buildings constructed between now and 2035. Instead, it will add significantly to an urgent problem we already have: the carbon emissions caused by existing housing and building stock.
So, even if Rishi finds ways to reduce the latter, (like the grant increases on alternatives to gas boilers – see below), that reduction will ultimately be offset by continuing to permit fossil fuels in many new builds – a mediocre outcome by any measure.
Had Rishi been at the Conference, and found himself on the stand where we were exhibiting our energy-saving building design solutions, we’d have pointed him to the outstanding work being done by the University of Hertfordshire in supporting low-carbon innovation – and explained to him how he has potentially diminished the effectiveness of that work by allowing the use of fossil fuel to be extended.
Better on petrol and diesel – but with caveats
Rishi’s decision to delay the ban on new petrol- and diesel-engined cars until 2035 – an extension of five years - certainly seems like a retrograde step at first glance.
However, pragmatically, we agree with this change, as we still do not have enough car chargers on our road network - nor the power in the national grid to support them. Rishi’s delay could provide the time needed to remedy these shortfalls.
But that’s a big “could” – because we haven’t seen any real evidence that such planning is underway. This is reinforced by our understanding of the recent UK Green BuildingCouncil report, which calls for a complete structural shift in the electricity network to maximise the effectiveness of renewables and the exporting of energy back to the grid.
Both these are arguably critical requirements in beefing up the network to meet electric vehicle demands.
So, what would our advice to Rishi have been on this point if he’d been chatting to us at the Conference?
Firstly, we’d probably have pointed him to Kier Transportation’s presentation Preparing for zero carbon transportation: A one-planet approach, since a joined-up approach to lowering vehicle emissions necessarily involves constructing transport infrastructure that embraces and promotes mobility beyond the motor car.
And secondly, we’d probably have encouraged him to take a leaf out of our own book and encourage businesses to promote the use of public transport to attend meetings, site visits, and so on, wherever possible.
After all, it works for us!
Raising the boiler upgrade grant: a curate’s egg
On the face of it, Rishi’s decision to upgrade the boiler grant by 50% to £7,500 to help households replace their gas boilers with low-carbon alternatives is a definite step in the right direction – and we have welcomed it publicly elsewhere.
But like the curate’s egg, some parts of it are good, and some not so much.
Let’s go back to the point we made above about putting back the deadline for the banning of fossil fuels. It is absolutely inevitable that this will slow the adoption of low-carbon alternatives. If all people and businesses can get away with not embracing the change necessary to move to fossil fuel alternatives, then many people and businesses will.
Our second issue, is that it misses a practical trick that is both cost-effective and highly energy-efficient. Had Rishi offered a similar grant for photovoltaic (PV) panels, it would have enabled the PV to charge a heat pump in the afternoon and provide free hot water, all year round.
There can be little doubt that benefits of this kind are potentially a massive lever to persuade and help homeowners and businesses to move towards low-carbon heating methods - but Rishi hasn’t delivered on this front.
Had he visited the Conference before making his pronouncements, a conversation on heat pump efficiency with us - not to mention a few minutes of his time taking in the presentation from Fujitsu General AirConditioning UK on optimising energy consumption patterns - could have availed him of some valuable prior advice.
So, Prime Minister, will we see you at the Conference next year?
Get in touch to find out more about how we can help you achieve energy-efficiency for your building, new or old, and smooth your journey to lower energy consumption and a net zero planet.