BESA says industry can achieve ‘real zero’
The UK government has committed itself to a legally binding target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The building engineering sector will be crucial in delivering the practical steps needed to turn this vision into reality, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).
In one of her last acts as Prime Minister, Theresa May committed the government to achieving the zero carbon targets recommended by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). The Association believes these are “eminently achievable”, and could spark much needed economic growth and provide welcome social benefits.
Of course, it will not be her government that delivers on this promise – they will be long gone and the target will be reviewed in five years’ time – nevertheless it is welcome.
BESA also backed the Committee’s vice chair Baroness Brown of Cambridge, who urged the construction sector to aim for ‘real zero’ – not just net zero – buildings. She told a building services industry meeting at the House of Lords that buildings would be a key focus of future government policy because they were responsible for a quarter of the country’s total CO2 emissions.
“This is an area where we know we can get to ‘real’ zero – not just ‘net’ zero – over the next 30 years,” she told the annual lunch of the Society of CIBSE Patrons. However, she warned that it would require a major transition “as we have the worst insulated homes in Europe and the highest proportion of housing connected to the gas grid”.
BESA chief executive David Frise pointed out that many of the cross-party parliamentary committee’s key proposals were aimed at the built environment including widespread adoption of low carbon heating.
The CCC said a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved at the same cost as the measures contained in the Climate Change Act i.e. 1-2% of GDP. The committee called for major improvements to the insulation and energy efficiency of existing buildings as well as a wholesale shift from fossil fuel-based heating.
It estimated that the transition to green heating systems would cost about £15bn a year up to 2050 and would involve widespread adoption of heat pumps in place of conventional boiler driven central heating and an acceleration in the use of district heating and hydrogen.
Baroness Brown urged the industry to work with the government to help tackle the skills gap so that it was better equipped to deliver the necessary growth in low carbon heating systems over the next 10 years.
Frise linked the net zero targets to the measures proposed for “improving the compliance culture” across construction by Dame Judith Hackitt in her post-Grenfell review of building regulations and safety. He also said it was wrong to assume that implementing a zero carbon strategy would require people to make sacrifices or slow economic growth. In fact, he asserted that the opposite was true.
“Reducing your contribution to global warming does not mean you have to give up a modern lifestyle and start wearing a hair shirt,” said Frise. “There has been a 44% drop in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 and, in that period, we have experienced a 75% increase in gross domestic product (GDP). Investment in low to zero carbon technologies and solutions have been, and will continue to be, a significant contributor to our economic prosperity.”
Implementing the Committee’s ambition for no new homes to be connected to the gas grid from 2025 should be “relatively easy to achieve”, according to Frise, but he thinks it will be more difficult to convert the UK’s 24.5 million existing homes to low/zero carbon power.
However, he said that the switch away from coal and towards renewables had radically altered the carbon content equation for electricity, which meant electric heating could now play an increasingly important part. He also called for a national programme to retrofit insulation, which would make it possible for the UK to adopt a less costly model of retrofitting homes with hybrid systems that have a domestic heat pump as a low carbon lynchpin.
“Low temperature systems could meet much of the demand with the retrofitting of larger emitters and underfloor systems. The existing gas boiler could sit back and act as a back-up that is only used on the coldest days and when there is a spike in hot water demand.”
The bigger challenge, however, will be providing the necessary electricity capacity, according to Frise. “With the rapid expansion of electric transport, our creaking grid is going to come under even greater pressure. If we try to emulate France where they are fitting 240,000 heat pumps a year – while suddenly plugging in tens of thousands of new electric cars – we will knock the grid over completely.”
As a result, a massive energy infrastructure investment is needed and Frise believes nuclear will have to play a part. He also said demand reduction was the other “missing part of the energy equation”, which had so far been poorly exploited. This should create huge business opportunities for the building engineering sector and lead to further job creation.
Tackling all of this will create economic opportunity while simultaneously reducing the damage we are doing to the environment. It also means the country can address some of its worst social justice issues, Frise believes.
High quality, low carbon systems can lift thousands of families out of fuel poverty by slashing energy bills, but more importantly they will be part of a retrofit programme that creates a legacy of high quality housing and facilities supporting social mobility, opportunity and more healthy living conditions for thousands of families.
“If you want to prevent people getting ill then they must live, work and play in civilised conditions,” said Frise. “If we continue to view buildings as purely financial investments, the problems of quantity and quality will persist. We need to recognise that building homes is also a ‘social’ investment as well as being a way to address climate change.”
“Our sector will have a huge part to play, but achieving the net zero goal will require high technical standards and clients will have to insist on seeing evidence of competence – as proposed by Dame Judith in her review,” added Frise. “If you want high quality buildings – new build and retrofit – then you must employ competent people focused on doing a good job.”
Overheating in homes is another social issue that contributes to poor health and productivity. Baroness Brown said this would have to be tackled in parallel with climate change. “Our summers are getting hotter – last year’s extraordinary temperatures will become the norm – and already 20% of our houses (around 4.5 million) overheat,” she told the Patrons meeting.
She paid tribute to Reanna Taylor, the CIBSE Graduate of the Year and chair of the BESA Future Leaders group, who was a special guest at the House of Lords event, which also marked the Patrons’ 40th anniversary and recent incorporation as a society of CIBSE.
“We need you and many more like you to do the practical stuff that Extinction Rebellion [climate change protestors] are calling for…in fact, we could do with having lots of clones of you.”
She said compliance with technical standards would deliver better quality buildings and reduced costs to consumers. Increasing the use of heat pumps, solar shading and ventilation would allow the country to build to a higher standard from the outset.
“There is a lot of change, but none of it is rocket science,” she said. “Your industry is doing these things already and what I want to hear in the future is that you are busy and expanding because that will mean that the right things are being done – and our young engineers will be making a difference.”
During a presentation earlier in the day, Taylor urged Patrons members along with the wider building services community to promote careers in building services to young people by emphasising the impact they could have on these major social and environmental issues.
“The best way to enthuse them about our work is to give them exercises that show how building services projects can save and improve lives while also making the world greener,” she said. “Rather than promoting the industry itself, we should focus on its wider aims.”
The Society’s chair David Fitzpatrick agreed and said this was a key target for CIBSE Patrons. He said the members – of which BESA is one – were “passionate about bringing new talent into the industry” and that being a Society of CIBSE was “fantastic and was already bringing benefits”. It would allow Patrons to work more closely with the Institution “to support and influence its many careers-related initiatives”.
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