This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
The UK built environment is responsible for approximately 25% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. The UK has a legally binding target to reach net zero by 2050 and at COP26 the Government committed to achieving 68% reductions in carbon emissions by 2030. This is only eight years away. There is little government guidance as to how these targets are to be met by the built environment industry.
This report examines how to improve sustainability of the built environment in the UK. Five broad themes are addressed: 1) accounting methods for embodied and whole-life carbon; 2) the use of low-carbon building materials; 3) government procurement of buildings; 4) issues surrounding retrofit and reuse; and 5) the skills and training required to delivered sustainable construction.
To address these issues, the single most significant policy the Government could introduce is a mandatory requirement to undertake whole-life carbon assessments for buildings. This requirement should be set within building regulations and the planning system. Following introduction of whole-life carbon assessments, the Government should develop progressively ratcheting carbon targets for buildings, to match the pathway to net zero. A clear timeline for introducing this should be set by the end of 2022. This policy will incentivise greater retrofitting, the development and use of low-carbon materials, and investment in low-carbon construction skills.
Alongside this key recommendation, there are a series of supporting policy changes that can further enhance the sustainability of the built environment. In particular, the Government should urgently undertake a full investigation into the impact extensions to permitted development rights (PDRs) has had on incentives to retrofit existing properties. PDRs should then be reformed to align with the Government commitment to promote reuse and retrofit ahead of demolition, if needs be.
The Government must also develop a coherent, joined-up policy to meet afforestation commitments and the need for commercial plantations to meet the demand for domestic timber in construction. The Government must invest now in further research and safety testing on the use of structural timber.
Ultimately, the carbon emissions associated with construction must be significantly and rapidly reduced if the Government is to meet its net zero goals. Introducing whole-life carbon assessments is a proven and widely supported way to transition to a low-carbon built environment. The Government must set out plans this year to make this a reality.