If you ask the general public what the largest sources of global carbon emissions are, you are likely to receive answers relating to coal, cars, and aviation.
Lesser known, however, is the extent of the impact that the built environment has on the natural world.
Despite concrete being the most widely used substance on Earth after water, and the built environment being responsible for 40% of global carbon emissions, it is yet to be a focal point in conversations about sustainability.
Tabled as the final themed day at COP26, Cities, Regions, and the Built Environment seemed to be an afterthought for global policymakers and, with few substantive outcomes taken forward by the British government following the talks, it is difficult to argue otherwise. Whilst strides continue to be made by industry experts into retrofitting existing building stocks – with advancements into digital twin and ‘green cement’ technologies, for example, enabling a circular economy for the built environment – this is useless unless governments are willing to meaningfully invest in the expansion of such infrastructure.
So, what policies does the UK already have in place to decarbonise the built environment, and do they go far enough?
The government’s Net Zero Strategy, published in October 2021, identified several policy priorities to improve energy efficiency whilst heating homes and work places, with commitments including: heating appliances to be low carbon by 2035; no gas boilers fitted in newbuild homes from 2025; funding for the decarbonisation and upgrading of social housing; reducing emissions from public sector buildings by 75% by 2036; the launch of a ‘Hydrogen Village’ to trial the use of hydrogen in heating systems by 2026; and two new schemes focused on Heat Pumps and Boiler Upgrades to enhance the supply of sustainable energy to homes.
On the surface, these objectives are encouraging. However, as we move toward the net zero target, the burden of making essential changes to protect the environment is being transferred to ordinary citizens as their homes need be retrofitted to become more environmentally friendly. Incentivising millions of people to actively make costly yet sustainable choices such as this will be a substantial challenge for the government to overcome, particularly if comprehensive financial support is not on the table following the axe of the Green Homes Grant.
To engage in honest discourse about climate change, the public must, as a minimum, be made aware of the ways their homes, offices, and community staples contribute to environmental degradation and what they can do to lessen these impacts. Without an expansive, national educational awareness programme highlighting the effects of the built environment, this is unlikely to happen.
Furthermore, for the sustainable alternatives being promoted to the public to decarbonise their homes to be actively chosen on a mass scale, it is critical that they are affordable. Whilst the Net Zero Strategy indicates that cheaper electricity will be delivered, the government must be clear about the practicalities and intricacies of this programme for it to be at all convincing. Fundamentally, consumers must be assured that they will not be worse off by making sustainable switches in their homes and day-to-day lives – assurances that the government will need to be able to confidently provide.
Disappointingly, despite rhetoric around the movement to operationally sustainable buildings, the British government failed to join the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance during COP26, bringing into question whether domestic leaders are truly prepared to commit to the manged phase-out of oil and gas. Going forward, policymakers in the UK must be willing to be held accountable to international agreements on their climate ambitions and introduce substantive policies that support these commitments, ultimately, ‘putting their money where their mouth is’.
To develop a cohesive national strategy that brings the entire country forward in the journey of sustainable development, reform to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that centres climate change mitigation policies, as recommended by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, is required. With the controversial white paper on planning still being drafted, the opportunity remains to embed sustainability and decarbonisation at its core, and to holistically consider how these elements interlink with the energy and transport sectors.
For the UK to continue its course as global leaders in the race to net zero, concerted efforts must be taken by the government, local authorities, and developers to implement substantive policy, with evidence of joined-up thinking, that will be considerably more effective than that which has come before.