Why the UK will Miss its Climate Targets Without a Step-Change in Building Energy Efficiency


The last 18 months have been a major set-back in the British policy landscape affecting carbon emissions from buildings: the trajectory to zero carbon new build has been paused; government support for Green Deal finance was withdrawn with no alternative mechanisms in place to encourage and enable investment by able-to-pay households; government announced that funding from the Energy Company Obligation will be reduced again; and a review of business energy taxes has led to proposals for a new tax structure but, as yet, no coherent supporting framework to encourage energy efficiency action.

This is despite the fact that an increase in policy action is required: In June, the 5th Carbon Budget was adopted by government setting firm carbon targets for the period from 2028 to 2032. Parliament approved them in July. Reaching those targets will require bold and ambitious policy action across all sectors.

However, new research by the Association for the Conservation of Energy and the Regulatory Assistance Project paints a worrying picture of the U.K.’s prospects for achieving its carbon targets in the building sector: the government’s own projections for abatement show that the U.K. will not meet the 5th Carbon Budget in buildings. Taken together, policies as they currently stand are projected by the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to achieve a 21 percent cut in direct emissions from buildings by 2030 compared to 1990, just 12 percent below the ‘business as usual’ emissions for 2030. This means that the U.K.’s emissions from buildings will exceed those recommended by the Committee on Climate Change for the 5th Carbon Budget, in 2030, by 18 percent.

Worryingly, a large part of the projected abatement from buildings (85 percent) is considered by the Committee on Climate Change to be ‘at-risk’, and after the vote to leave the EU there is uncertainty around which previously EU driven policies driven will remain. In other words, the majority of projected emissions abatement from buildings is seen as uncertain and may not be achieved. It may not be technically possible, and it is certainly not economical, to close this abatement gap in the power, transport, and industrial sectors instead.

Consequently, we need to de-risk, reform, extend, and expand existing policies, but also introduce new instruments in order to speed up carbon abatement in the buildings sector. Additional regulatory policies such as energy efficiency standards at point-of-sale (as is currently being implemented in France and considered in Scotland) are needed and new build standards need to be tightened towards zero carbon or nearly zero energy. Alongside, a substantial financing scheme offering low-interest loans is required to enable households and businesses to upgrade their properties and make them fit for a low-carbon future.

Our research shows that the benefits of meeting the 5th Carbon Budget in buildings justify considerable public and private investment to capture them. We quantified the main costs and benefits generally considered for formal policy impact assessments, calculated in accordance with official guidance. The result is that the benefits exceed the costs to a similar degree as High Speed 2 (a planned high-speed railway linking London to the north of the U.K.) and the smart meter rollout. This means that there is a strong economic case for investing in upgrading the U.K.’s building stock.

We estimate the net benefit from energy savings, emissions savings, improved air quality and health, and comfort and productivity to be in excess of £45 billion. And this figure does not include the value of employment needed across the country to deliver the 5th Carbon Budget in buildings, the value of avoided gas imports and improved energy security, the GDP boost it would deliver, nor the additional revenue it would generate for the public coffers.

Ensuring this happens depends on the creation of a robust and long-term policy framework that supports the development of sustainable markets for low carbon retrofit and construction. The most strategic opportunity at which such a step-change can be signalled is in the forthcoming Carbon Plan; the Building Renovation Strategy due next spring also presents an opportunity.