Most people have rightly acknowledged that global warming is a very real problem. It does not recognise international borders or economic wealth; it affects us all and we all have a responsibility to address it.
In 2008, the UK became the first nation to take legally enshrined steps to tackle climate change with the Climate Change Act, the central commitment of which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 compared with 1990 levels.
More than 11 years on, progress has been promising, but there is more to do. The UK has cut emissions by 43% – no mean feat considering the economy has grown more than 70% in the same time.
But the headline figures mask a less positive reality: 75% of the reduction in emissions since 2012 has been achieved thanks to changing sources of power. The UK has adopted renewables and reduced its reliance on emission-heavy coal.
Emissions from the construction and development industry have remained more or less constant since the introduction of the Climate Change Act, accounting for 40% of total UK emissions.
Driving a meaningful emissions reduction in construction was never going to be as straightforward as with other industries – the use of heavy machinery and the development of previously wild land are ingrained.
Tremendous strides have been made by the construction industry through the Zero Carbon Homes policy, launched in 2006 by then chancellor Gordon Brown. This provided a 10-year framework for all new-builds to offset the emissions produced in the building process by regulating energy use.
Developers embraced Brown’s plan, lauding the benefits of a consistent environmental policy for the industry, but in 2015, one year out from maturation, the policy was culled by George Osborne under his efforts to remove legislative red tape in the construction process. As a result, progress has stalled.
A key challenge for industry is to bridge the gap between modelled energy consumption at the design stage and actual metered energy use when a building is in operation.
Research by the Carbon Trust identifies that in-use energy consumption can be up to five times higher than estimated at design stage. There are a number of factors affecting the accuracy of compliance modelling and the shortfall in ‘actual’ performance. Therefore, industry must conduct more realistic modelling at the design stage and monitor operational performance to learn lessons that can help close the gap.
As we look to the 2050 deadline of the Climate Change Act, there are clear opportunities for embedding improved environmental outcomes in conjunction with increased efficiency of delivery.
The policy framework is only ever half the equation; the other half is the industry itself, which must be willing to make honest efforts in the drive to solve this crisis and reverse the damaging curve of climate change.
From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, society is demanding that companies make positive social and environmental contributions. Housebuilding cannot afford to sit outside this.
David Hershkorn is property partner at Joelson