Homes across the country will struggle to cope with rising temperatures, floods, and water scarcity, UK climate watchdog warns
If you've ever watched Kirsty and Phil on Channel 4, in any of their myriad of TV shows about property hunting, then you will be familiar with the concept of a 'forever home'.
That's the one that comes after the first-time flat and the home just about big enough to squeeze the kids and the family dog into. By the time you come to buy your 'forever home', so the narrative goes, you're ready to settle down and live out your days in a sprawling, usually period, property with multiple bedrooms, an expansive garden, and if you're lucky, an inglenook fireplace. Once you've found it, that home will, it is promised, provide you with a safe, secure, and comfortable place to live for the rest of your days.
But if the government's climate advisors are to be believed, the 'forever home' is a mirage for many UK home buyers. In a new report released today, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warns the UK's stock of existing houses are not fit for a future ravaged by the impacts of climate change, vulnerable as they are to overheating, flooding, and water scarcity.
Around 4.5 million UK homes overheat during even mild summers, 1.8 million face serious flood risk, and on average UK homes consume more water than their European counterparts, making them extremely vulnerable to sudden shocks in national water supply. Not even Kirsty and Phil can solve this particular housing crisis.
"As the climate continues to change, our homes are becoming increasingly uncomfortable and unsafe," warned Baroness Brown, chair of the CCC's Adaptation Committee. "This will continue unless we take steps now to adapt them for higher temperatures, flooding and water scarcity."
Yet neither are our homes helping in the fight to prevent such a future from coming to pass, with the CCC condemning the UK's housing stock for its woeful energy efficiency levels. Housing is currently responsible for 14 per cent of total UK emissions, a figure which rose by one per cent in 2017 compared to the previous year. But if the UK is to meet its legally binding climate commitments, emissions from the UK's stock of existing - and future - housing must be reduced to almost zero by mid-century. This, the CCC calculates, means emissions from housing must fall by at least 24 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. "We cannot meet our objectives without a major improvement in UK housing," the CCC declares starkly in today's report.
But the government is not doing nearly enough to address the problem, the CCC contends. Since the controversial decision to axe the Zero Carbon Homes standard back in 2015, only months before it was due to come into effect, the UK's energy efficiency sector has been burdened with a decidedly under-powered policy regime, which according to the CCC is "failing to drive either the scale or the pace of change needed". A recent report from the think tank ECIU suggested that the decision to scrap the Zero Carbon Homes policy single-handedly added £200 a year to the energy bills of people living in new build homes. Meanwhile, cuts to energy efficiency retrofit programmes have similarly undermined progress across the existing housing stock.
As a matter of priority, the CCC is now calling on the government to focus on delivering on policy action across five key areas in a bid to ignite action in this oft-neglected policy area.
Firstly, renewed efforts must be made to ensure all new homes meet existing standards, following concerns raised in the 2018 Hackett Review that compliance is weak and there is industry indifference around build quality. Plans to further tighten building standards - as first set out in the Clean Growth Strategy - will have little impact unless existing standards are adhered to, the CCC points out.
Secondly, government should launch a nationwide training programme to address what the CCC describes as a "skills gap" in green building techniques, which has emerged in the wake of years of constantly changing government policy. Such a programme should include investment in new training for designers, builders, and installers, particularly for those working in low-carbon heating, water efficiency, ventilation, and flood protection.
Retrofitting existing homes must also form a significant part of the policy jigsaw, the CCC says. The Treasury must provide extra support for retrofitting measures, it said, given that the challenge has been identified by the National Infrastructure Commission as a major UK infrastructure priority.
And the focus has to move beyond insulation, the CCC advises, highlighting how upgrades and repairs to existing homes should include plans for shading and ventilation, measures to reduce indoor moisture, improve air quality and water efficiency, and, in homes at risk of flooding, property-level flood protection.
Research indicates a nation-wide retrofitting programme would offer substantial benefits for homeowners and make a significant dent in carbon emissions. For example, more than 11 million UK homes could be suitable for a highly energy efficient, Dutch-style approach to retrofitting that could drastically slash carbon emissions, gas demand, and consumer bills, a report from Green Alliance found earlier this month.
Meanwhile, new homes should represent the gold standard for carbon, energy, and water use, with the report pointing out that far from costing more, such an approach would actually save money in the long run. One of the key future-proofing measures for new homes is around heating provision - from 2025 no new homes should be connected to the gas grid, the CCC said. Instead, low-carbon heating sources should be used, alongside better ventilation and timber frames where possible.
Finally, and perhaps inevitably, the CCC warns the government must be prepared to throw more money at the problem. First on the priority list is setting out the funding situation for low-carbon heating beyond 2021, and funnelling more cash towards local authorities so they can better police existing building standards.
Recommendations from the Green Finance Taskforce - which last year called for the introduction of 'Green Building Passports' and the mainstreaming of green mortgages - should be implemented to boost the market for green homes, the CCC added.
Given the urgent need for extra funding and market interventions to speed the rollout of green buildings, campaigners were quick to point out the need for the Treasury to put its best foot forward.
"The report underlines the need for the Treasury to take the lead on ensuring UK homes are energy efficient," said Alasdair MacEwen, a spokesman for the Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group, which represents over 30 cross-industry organisations. "Unless action is taken immediately, as the report says, the cost of retrofitting homes could be up to five times what it is now. Making homes low carbon, energy efficient and climate resilient must be a UK national infrastructure priority."
But much of the new policies needed to drive progress in areas such as low-carbon heating will come from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). A spokeswoman for the Department insisted it would now consider the CCC's recommendations closely, but also stressed a plan is already in place to reduce emissions from UK housing. This includes targets to halve energy use in new buildings by 2030, boost the green heating sector, and halve the cost of renovating existing buildings to a similar standard as new buildings, BEIS said. "Over the next 10 years, we have committed to drive £6bn to improve the energy efficiency of lower income and vulnerable households," the spokeswoman added in a statement.
Yet according to the CCC, such efforts on their own will not be enough to reduce emissions or shield homeowners from some of the worst impacts of climate change. Until a new radical approach to housing is delivered, property hunters will struggle to find a truly 'forever' home in the UK - even with the help of Kirsty and Phil.
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