Housing bodies should be in the lead in driving towards the government’s carbon emission targets, but energy efficiency has fallen down their agenda. They must make the most of the government’s new Green Deal
This week’s ‘soft’ launch of the government’s Green Deal coincides with the half-way stage in the One Hundred Months campaign, which aims to draw attention to the limited time we have to stop the planet heating by more than two degrees centigrade. The timing is probably a coincidence, but as several alternative programmes come to an end, the Green Deal is now the government’s ‘flagship’ strategy to tackle climate change.
To say that there is a lot at stake is a gross understatement. Yesterday, a group of concerned organisations – ranging from Greenpeace to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes – had a letter in the Guardian calling for a massive energy efficiency drive to make the drastic cuts in carbon emissions that we need to achieve. As they also pointed out, not only is this essential if we are to have any chance of stopping the planet from overheating, it’s also good for the economy and helps tackle escalating fuel costs.
But the letter writers also bemoan the fact that climate change has fallen far down the political agenda. Officially, this isn’t the case: the government aims to be the ‘greenest ever’ and it still sticks to the legally binding targets to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 with an interim target for 2020. Yet, although this will mean decarbonising our electricity supply, the government is equivocating on alternatives such as wind power and promoting the greater use of gas.
In housing, the 2050 target translates into the extraordinary target of retrofitting one house every minute to a high standard of energy efficiency. This is because more than a quarter of the carbon we produce comes from our homes (and a further proportion from the gadgets they contain). Also, even though it’s difficult to drastically cut emissions from houses it’s far easier than doing so from transport, where our dependence on oil is likely to continue for several years.
Will the Green Deal achieve this? The government’s aim is that it starts off slowly and gathers momentum as householders realise the fuel savings that can be made. However, this market-driven approach has fundamental weaknesses.
First, it requires consumers to take on loans and enter into what are bound to seem complex agreements, based on promises of reduced fuel bills. If their homes require more complicated measures than loft insulation or a new boiler they are going to take some persuading.
Second, the investment is limited to what can be recovered by fuel savings, but this means the home may not achieve the standards of insulation necessary to meet the carbon targets. Obviously, someone who has had expensive work done is unlikely to embark on another round of energy saving for several years.
Third, consumers will not actually see their bills go down, as the savings will be absorbed by the repayments. At a time of escalating fuel costs, the benefits of lower fuel bills will be long-delayed.
In the social housing sector, the government has the opportunity to invest directly in the stock through cost-effective programmes that raise energy-efficiency standards in whole neighbourhoods. As the Chartered Institute of Housing guide to Greening your housing stock shows, there are already many examples of councils and housing associations doing just that.
But the programmes that have enabled them to do so are now coming to an end, and the replacement ‘ECO’ programme is not yet in place. The result is that energy efficiency has fallen down the agenda of housing bodies too, yet they are precisely the organisations that need to be in the lead in driving towards the 2020 and 2050 targets.
The letter from national organisations reminds us what is at stake. We simply don’t know what will happen to life on Earth if the two-degree threshold is passed, and this is why not only Britain but the whole of Europe has pledged to take action not to cross it. As we have seen this year more clearly than even, with the droughts in the USA, floods in Britain and the record decline in Arctic ice, the planet is giving us regular reminders of the damage we are doing to it. Yet like rabbits in the headlights, we refuse to move.
There’s still much that the public sector and social landlords in particular can do. We need to make the most of the Green Deal and other programmes, including EU funding. Greening your housing stock shows how to do that and points to the organisations that are already in the lead. Housing bodies need to know the energy efficiency of their stock and it should be a major factor in their asset management strategies and planned maintenance programmes.
If they are building new homes, there should be no compromise on standards – they should be as near carbon-free as is economically viable. They can take wider action through their tenants and in the communities in which they work. They can insist on their procurement chains being as environmentally-friendly as possible and this will help drive standards in the wider commercial sectors.
It’s still possible for the housing sector to take a lead on this issue – and it would be morally irresponsible if we didn’t.