Select Committee on Communities and Local Government Committee Seventh Report

1  Carbon emissions and housing stock

The challenge

1. The United Kingdom contains more than 26 million homes ranging from the largest Elizabethan mansion to the smallest purpose-built flat. Collectively, those homes emitted 41.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) in 2004, representing more than a quarter of the UK's emissions (152 MtCO2) of the main greenhouse gas driving climate change.[1] Over the next 12 years, the Government believes that 3 million more units will need to be added to the UK housing stock, and considerable effort has been made to ensure that those additional homes are as carbon-neutral as modern building methods, technologies and government regulation can make them. The question animating this Report, therefore, is what can be done to minimise and reduce the carbon footprint of the already existing housing stock, particularly given that an estimated 23 to 25 million of the homes already standing will still be lived in half a century from now. To put it another way, two thirds of the homes likely to exist in 2050 already do.

2. There is clear scientific and political consensus that climate change is the greatest long-term challenge facing the world. The United Kingdom is committed to reducing carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. A reduction of that level in emissions from the housing stock would equate to about 24 million fewer tonnes of carbon, leaving emissions at about 17 million tonnes per annum.[2] The Government has accepted that individual sectors—housing, other buildings, construction and transport, for example—may contribute differential proportions to that total reduction, and that "it may not be cost-effective to seek to achieve the full 60% from existing homes".[3] It is clear, however, that a significant contribution to the overall reduction is required from housing, and some campaigners, particularly Brenda Boardman of Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, have argued that the target should be as high as an 80 per cent reduction from housing.[4]

3. Whatever the level set, substantial gains can and need to be made from actions to reduce the emissions that result from our heating, our lighting, our water use and the way we manage our homes. Familiar technologies already exist that offer quick and comparatively low-cost improvements—cavity wall and loft insulation, better-insulated windows, less draughty doors. Newer technologies—wind generation, community heat and power systems, solar power—offer longer-term and as yet less certain returns, and questions arise of whether the markets exist to disseminate them cost-effectively and widely, and whether a skills base exists for their efficient and appropriate installation. Actions are also required from the individuals who live in those 26 million homes, from landlords and homeowners, from local and central government, and from builders, engineers, installation experts and planning departments. Finally, those actions depend in turn on existing, new and developing information about what can and should be done to reduce our carbon emissions.

4. The average newly built home in the UK emits 0.86 tonnes of carbon a year; the average household living in an existing home is responsible for about twice as much, at 1.6 tonnes, three quarters of which arises from space and water heating and from lighting.[5] The initial prognosis for a reduction as substantial as 60 per cent does not, on the face of it, look good: energy consumption per household in the UK has remained more or less stable since 1990, and the rising number of households (the Government predicts 223,000 more households in England each year to 2026) might be expected to bring about an increase.[6] Overall stability has, however, been something of an achievement in itself in the face of a 40 per cent growth in the demand for energy services—particularly for appliances. It has also occurred in spite of rising consumer expectations and desire for comfort, particularly warmth: the Construction Products Association notes a 50 per cent increase in average home temperatures in the past four decades:

In 1970, the average UK house was heated to an average of 12°C, whilst by 2003 this had risen to 18°C.[7]

Standing still for nearly four decades has, then, required considerable effort, and the Energy Saving Trust estimates that domestic energy efficiency measures taken since 1970 have halved what UK domestic energy demand would otherwise be.[8] Stability is no longer enough, though. The amount of energy we use to heat and light our homes now needs to decline, and sharply, if carbon emission reductions from the housing stock are to contribute towards the 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 to which the United Kingdom is committed.

1   Department for Communities and Local Government, Review of the Sustainability of Existing Buildings, November 2006. Back

2   Ev 259-60 Back

3   Ev 287 Back

4   Brenda Boardman, Home Truths: A Low-carbon Strategy to reduce UK housing emissions by 80% by 2020, University of Oxford's Environmental Change Institute, Co-operative Bank and Friends of the Earth, November 2007. Back

5   Ev 260 Back

6   Department for Communities and Local Government, Building a Greener Future: Policy Statement, July 2007), p. 10 Back

7   Ev 151 Back

8   Ev 260 Back

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