Colin Timmins, H&V Portfolio Manager at BEAMA, examines the current rate of progress towards net zero emissions in the UK.

The UK target to meet net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is hugely challenging. What’s more, while a target for 2050 seems a long way away, it actually requires immediate action to fundamentally change how things are done. 

As an example, the government accepts that meeting the net zero target will require all heat in homes to be decarbonised, and policy is being devised with significant steps to be taken on this in the next decade. Steps that will fundamentally change the choices we make over how to heat our homes.

Those of us in the industry see many barriers to the level of change required and it is encouraging that we are starting to see some thought given to what the barriers are and what can be done to overcome them. 

The House of Commons’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee published a report in July that took a big step forward by setting out the need for some radical changes in thinking and approach if we are to improve the energy efficiency of buildings to the level needed. 

Select Committees such as this one scrutinise the work of government departments. Their reports and recommendations require a response from government and can be followed up by debates in Parliament, so it is fair to say they carry real weight.

One of the key targets for government is that all existing homes should be upgraded to meet at least an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band C, however it caveats this by saying “where practical, cost-effective, and affordable”. 

The Committee Report, to its credit, says that this caveat is too vague and gives a strong message that government needs to be clear on what these terms mean for individual houses, and to get on and meet its target. It notes that the current rate of insulation being installed has dropped since 2012 and needs to be significantly increased. 

Even more damningly, the report states that government “does not have a sufficient grasp of what its own EPC targets mean in practice, nor the required costs to meet them”. It highlights the Comprehensive Spending Review, due later this year, as a “litmus test for whether the government is serious about energy efficiency and, in turn, net zero”. 

Strong words, but reading the report, it is hard to argue that they are an overstatement and, encouragingly, there is a welcome acknowledgement that investment in energy efficiency reduces bills for householders, creates jobs, optimises infrastructure, and can reduce costs to the NHS. 

The report also recommends that the government treats the energy efficiency of all buildings across the UK as a national infrastructure policy and implements policies that reflect this. 

This is something that most bodies agree on, and it would be great for the heating industry to have some real certainty about the path of travel, as this should certainly include improving the efficiency of existing heating systems rather than just waiting until they break down.

Newbuild homes are another target of the report, with the strong message that regulation is needed to ‘force’ (their words) large housebuilders to raise the energy standards of their stock. One of the barriers highlighted was of loopholes that allow new homes to be built to outdated Building Regulations standards. 

The impact of this is illustrated through large housebuilders telling the Committee that up to 62% of their homes built in 2018 were built to standards that pre-date the 2013 regulations. Unsurprisingly, the report recommends that these loopholes are closed so that homes are built to the current minimum standards. 

Another barrier to the efficiency standards of new homes is the ‘performance gap’, where evidence shows a substantial gap between the design energy efficiency of a building and its actual performance when built. The recommendation of the Committee to resolve this is for the ‘as built’ performance of new homes to be tested and the results published. 

This is something that would be a significant change from current practice, where house buyers will rarely get such information, even though it could make a huge difference to their comfort and bills.

The overriding impression from this report is that people in positions of power are finally beginning to realise that radical action is necessary. 

We’ve had decades of start/stop policies on energy efficiency, with a significant lack of political will to close loopholes that allow action to be avoided, or to force necessary action that might be unpopular. 

The tide could well be turning, and we will watch what happens to the recommendations from this report with interest.