22 March 2021

Housing is one of the areas where reducing our emissions – climate change mitigation – and making ourselves resilient to the changing climate – adaptation – really come together.

Emissions from buildings make up one of the largest contributions to climate change in the UK, mainly from gas boilers used for heating and hot water. Not only is this one of the largest sources of emissions, but it has remained stubbornly high whilst other sources, such as power generation and industry, have reduced. We have some of the least well-insulated housing stock in Europe, with the majority of these homes heated by gas. We also have a large proportion of older and historic homes of which we are, in many cases, understandably fond in the UK. That leaves us the challenge of converting almost 30 million homes to low carbon heating by 2050. The government has announced a target of 600,000 heat pump installations a year by 2028 – a good starting target, now we have to achieve it.

Even if we are on a path to net zero globally, with a good chance of limiting warming to below 2oC by the end of the century, we will still see some significant further changes in our weather in the UK. If we can’t get commitment to global action at COP 26 this November, we will remain on a path to 3oC or 4oC of warming. The inevitable change by 2050, i.e. the net zero path, will give us average temperatures about 0.7oC warmer than today, rainfall which could be 25% less in summer and up to 16% more in winter, with an increasing incidence of short periods of very heavy rainfall, leading both to drought and to river and surface water flooding. In the South East the hottest temperatures experienced have been rising at approaching 1oC per decade since the 1960s – 6oC already and 9oC by 2050 – meaning that 40oC temperatures will be a regular occurrence. Sea level could rise by up to 37cm, increasing the risk of coastal flooding. Such changes have significant implications for the homes we live in. And those are the changes on a global net zero path. If we aren’t, by the end of the century expect average temperatures 3oC higher, up to 53% less summer rain and 41% more in winter, and sea level rise of more than 1m.

To reduce emissions and make ourselves resilient to the inevitable change, our existing houses and buildings need significant upgrading, and new builds need to meet exacting standards. Our homes will need to be zero emissions, have good ventilation and shading to cope with high temperatures, be water efficient to help manage water shortages and employ sustainable urban drainage systems to address surface water flooding. In some places further property level flood resilience measures will be needed to help address the growing risks of river and coastal flooding, ensuring people can get back into their properties quickly if they are flooded. The precise needs in different places will be different – maximum temperatures in the South East will be higher than in Scotland, some parts of the country will be much more drought prone than others – but we need action everywhere.

If that sounds like a lot to do, it is. But it doesn’t all have to be done at once, every existing home needs a ‘climate plan’ or green building passport, mapping out how upgrades can be done in stages, and at key points when other refurbishment is taking place or when properties are bought and sold, and to show the current state of the property. The plan will generally start with insulation, because zero carbon heat solutions like heat pumps will work most effectively in well insulated homes. However when planning insulation, ventilation and shading need to be tackled at the same time, excluding draughts must not result in poor air quality and damp problems.

Many of the solutions involve technology and building fabric, but nature has a major role to play. Sustainable urban drainable systems involve green roofs, rainwater collection flowing into water features, and porous areas – such as grass and planting – for water to soak away. Trees can provide shading and green space reduces the urban heat island effect which adds to the rising temperatures in our towns and cities.

Making these changes will improve the quality and comfort of our homes, and will reduce running costs, but significant upfront capital costs will be needed in many cases. Central and local government have key roles to play in enabling these changes, including:

  • Introducing green building passports covering both mitigation and adaptation.
  • Grant support and low interest loans to ensure housing providers can access the funds required to make the improvements.
  • Strong and effective building standards that are enforced for new builds and for retrofit that combine mitigation and adaptation.
  • High standards for rented properties
  • Rebalancing the taxes on gas and electricity so electric heating such as heat pumps become a cheaper option.
  • And a building safety regulator that recognises climate change as a building safety issue.

Climate-proofing our homes is going to be a long journey and it’s urgent that we get going. The experience of the Green Homes Grant scheme – which only covers mitigation – has not been a great start.

Baroness Julia Brown will be joining us at Climate Change and Sustainability in Housing on Wednesday 21 April to discuss where we are on the journey to net zero. Join us and book your places today.

Baroness Julia Brown

Baroness Brown of Cambridge (Professor Dame Julia King) is an engineer, with a career spanning senior engineering and leadership roles in industry and academia.

Baroness Brown holds the following positions:

  • Chair of the Committee on Climate Change’s Adaptation Committee
  • Non-executive director of the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult
  • Chair of the Carbon Trust

She was non-executive Director of the Green Investment Bank and led the King Review on decarbonising transport (2008). She is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and of the Royal Society, and was awarded DBE for services to higher education and technology. She is a crossbench Peer and a member of the House of Lords European Union Select Committee.

The role of housing in tackling climate change