Britain’s grand challenge for the century

The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the building stock in this country needs to be improved. Now all that needs to be done is to find a way of delivering, believes Andrew Warren

Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the passage of the UK Climate Change Act. As the Prime Minister told the House of Commons in celebration, this marked the UK out as the first developed country to adopt into national law a legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas commitments.

Subsequently, the Government has joined with 195 countries, through the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to limit the rise in global temperature to well below 2oC, and to pursue efforts to limit to 1.5oC.

The Paris Agreement was but the latest such international commitment. Earlier pledges were made with the Kyoto Treaty in 1997, and at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1990. On each occasion, the UK - usually working in tandem with other key European Union countries – has been in the forefront of those calling for commitments that matched the scientific concerns regularly being expressed by United Nations bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

And the UK can proudly claim to have met each of these earlier commitments. At least, to date. Since 1990, greenhouse gas emissions have reduced by 40 per cent. Every objective observer would acknowledge how this proud record has been achieved. It has been very largely by switching the source of how electricity is generated.

Basically we have steadily been removing coal generation from the system. The most carbon intensive of conventional fuels, we have switched from producing over 80 per cent of our electricity by coal in the key base year of 1990. To the current position where well over 80 per cent of our electricity is now produced from less climate-damaging fuels.

This is important. But it isn’t the entire picture. Despite the relentless focus upon it, as of now, only 20 per cent of the energy we consume is electric. Our heating is predominantly run by gas. As are many process plants. Currently oil – in the shape of diesel and petrol - dominates the transport sector.

In all the debates about the merits or demerits of individual fuels, one factor is key. I have never yet met anybody who wanted to buy a litre of oil. Or a kilowatt hour of gas or electricity. Instead, what every single consumer is seeking is the services these fuels can provide: light, heat, motive power.

That is why energy efficiency is billed – by the International Energy Agency, now by the European Union- as “the first fuel.” If you can deliver the same services using a fraction of the energy conventionally required, in principal everyone wins. The less energy you use, the less money you pay to receive these services.

Last year, Theresa May launched the Clean Growth Strategy for the next 30 years. This identified the enormous economic potential for business to save fuel. At least one-fifth could very cost-effectively be saved. Interestingly, the vast majority of this potential (over 80 per cent) was to be released not so much by improving industrial processes. But significantly by improving the way buildings are run.

Doubtless that was one of the main motivations why the Prime Minister earlier this summer launched her “Buildings Mission” in a speech at the Jodrell Bank observatory complex in Cheshire.

She promised that within 12 years, energy usage in all new commercial and residential buildings will be “at least half” that permitted under the current building regulations. “Heating and powering buildings accounts for 40 per cent of our total energy usage,” promised Theresa May. “By making our buildings more energy efficient and embracing smart technologies, we can slash household energy bills, reduce demand for energy, and meet our targets for carbon reduction.”

She continued: “By halving the energy use of buildings, we could reduce the energy bills for their occupants by as much as 50 per cent.”

Subsequently, the Government has confirmed that while such calculations will for the first time include energy use from appliances within their calculations, they will not include transport usage. Presumably that caveat is to remove any recharging of electric vehicles from assessments.

Describing her initiative as “a catalyst for new technologies and more productive methods”, which she maintained could be “exported to a large and growing market for new technologies”, Mrs May acknowledged the enormous potential to improve the existing building stock.

As part of the “clean growth and grand challenge mission”, the Government is also aiming to halve the energy costs for the existing building stock - both domestically and commercially by “reaching the same standards in existing buildings too.”

This is a genuinely ambitious project. After all, the vast majority of buildings we will be living and working in by 2050 have already been built. Upgrading these has been likened by civil servants charged with delivery as being much akin to the challenge set in President Kennedy inaugural speech in 1961. This was to see a man walk on the moon before the decade was out.

At that point, nobody knew with any precision how this noble objective would be achieved. But that speech became the catalyst. It ensured that in July 1969, a man named Armstrong would walk upon the moon.

I don’t really think that realising this buildings mission is anything like as difficult. Unlike with space research, we do already have practically all the technologies around to achieve our goal. It’s the delivery techniques we have to improve upon. Or, as the PM more prosaically put it, using “more productive methods.”

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