The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has warned that emissions in the construction of buildings need to be reduced if the UK is to meet its climate goals.
To date, there has been a lack of government impetus or policy levers to assess and reduce these emissions, it says, and with climate deadlines looming, “urgent action is needed.”
From residential to commercial buildings, the UK’s built environment is responsible for 25% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.
To reduce the levels of CO2 in construction, for instance when using cement and steel, EAC recommends that the government introduces a mandatory requirement for whole-life carbon assessments for buildings.
This requirement should be fully incorporated in building regulations and the planning system, it says.
Such an assessment would calculate the emissions from the construction, maintenance, and demolition of a building, and from the energy used in its day-to-day operation.
Once these assessments are in place, the government should develop carbon targets for buildings to align with the UK’s net-zero goals, the committee recommends.
A clear timeframe for introducing whole-life carbon assessments, and ratcheting targets, should be set by the government by the end of 2022 at the latest, and they should be introduced not later than December 2023, it says.
The committee adds that retrofit and the reuse of buildings, keeping the carbon locked in, should be prioritised over new-builds.
While the government states it is prioritising retrofit and reuse, the committee is concerned that reforms to permitted development rights “appear to have created an incentive for demolition and new-build over retrofit”.
The government must therefore “urgently evaluate” the impact of recent reforms to ensure that retrofit and reuse are prioritised, it says.
Where retrofit is not possible, the EAC recommends efficient and more effective use of low-carbon building materials.
While the EAC is largely critical of the government’s commitment to reducing construction emissions, it says that the government’s investment in the development of low-carbon cements is “welcome”.
It adds that mandating whole-life carbon assessments for buildings could encourage the use of more recycled steel and other recycled building materials.
EAC recognises the potential of timber as a low-carbon construction material; however, it has identified “significant hurdles” to its wider use, such as appropriate sourcing, enhanced tree planting, and a current skills gap in timber use in construction.
Without these “vital” green skills in the UK economy, net-zero ambitions will fall flat, the committee says.
EAC is therefore reiterating its previous recommendation that a retrofit strategy and upskilling programme be developed and published.
In addition, EAC recommends that training in undertaking whole-life carbon assessments is made accessible through the education system.
Environmental Audit committee chair Philip Dunne said: “From homes to offices, retail units to hospitality venues, our buildings have a significant amount of locked-in carbon, which is wasted each time they get knocked down to be rebuilt, a process which produces yet more emissions.
“Ministers must address this urgently. Promising steps are being taken: for instance, the Levelling-Up, Housing, and Communities Secretary of State recently paused the demolition and retrofit of Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street on environmental grounds.
“But much more needs to be done, and baseline standards for action need to be established.”
He continued: “Mandatory whole-life carbon assessments, and targets to crack down on embodied carbon, provide part of the answer.
“Constructors and developers can then determine which low-carbon materials, such as timber and recycled steel, they can use.
“As in many other areas in the drive to net-zero, the UK must have the green skills to make its low-carbon future a reality.
“Before the summer recess in July, I urge the government to publish a retrofit strategy and upskilling programme that can ensure the UK economy will have the green jobs necessary to deliver a low-carbon built environment.”
Commenting on the report, UKGBC’s director of Communications, Policy, and Places, Simon McWhirter, said: “Today’s hard-hitting report from the Environmental Audit Committee should act as a wake-up call to the Government.
“‘Embodied carbon’ emissions from the construction and refurbishment and demolition of buildings each year total more than aviation and shipping industries combined, yet the government has no policies to measure and regulate this.
“Our roadmap to decarbonise the whole of the sector shows embodied carbon emissions must be slashed by more than half in the next decade for the UK to be on track for net zero by 2050.
“Whilst many of our members are working hard on this, without a consistent requirement to measure and mitigate embodied carbon it is far from mainstream practice across the industry.
“To see progress at scale, we need national regulation.
“This is a huge untapped opportunity to cut carbon emissions and at the same time generate skilled jobs in every part of the country.”
Patrick Chauvin, from housing association Stonewater, said: “Without accelerated intervention and further investment from the government, the UK will miss its net zero targets by some decades.
“Mandatory whole-life carbon assessments will enable housebuilders and providers to take a more holistic approach, rather than just focusing on operational emissions, to achieve net-zero.
“Understanding the wider impact of building as well as maintaining homes, in conjunction with the materials used, is something we have been working towards with supply chain partners through our Environmental Forum.
“In conjunction with this work, we are also creating a specialist role within our sustainability team to primarily focus on undertaking lifecycle costing and assessments – supporting the recommendations made by the EAC.”
Regarding the skills gap and national retrofit programme, he said: “We recognise the challenges presented by a lack of skills and capacity within the supply chain to deliver retrofit at scale, which is exacerbated by government grant funding being subject to such tight delivery timescales.
“Whilst we are currently looking to train to some of our surveyors to become retrofit assessors and have recently trained one to be a retrofit coordinator to support our scaling up of retrofit, more investment and a long-term decarbonisation plan is needed.
“As recommended by the EAC, this approach could support the government to stimulate and give confidence to the supply chain, create jobs and tackle fuel poverty.
“This was the findings in our research ‘All Hands to the Pump’ with the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), which found that the development of a national retrofit programme could create up to 275,000 jobs in England by 2035.”
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