Cold homes, hot planet

We all want to come home to somewhere warm, but Britain's housing is cold, draughty, and powered by fossil fuels.

The Great Homes Upgrade

One week after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its code red’ report on the climate crisis, and in the midst of extreme weather events around the world, our own Treasury is reportedly blocking the policies we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Just over two months before the UK hosts the UN climate summit, tension is flaring between Boris Johnson and the chancellor over how much it will cost the UK to become a net-zero emissions economy.

One flashpoint is how we decarbonise our homes, with the Treasury holding up the government’s low-carbon heating strategy, scrapping the green homes grant after just six months, and delaying the phasing out of new gas boilers. Housing makes up 15% of UK greenhouse gas emissions from things like burning oil and gas for hot water, cooking and heating — and right now, there’s no real plan for how we’re going to stop our homes from contributing to the climate crisis.

We all want to come home to somewhere warm and comfortable, but much of our housing in the UK is leaky and draughty. We have older housing stock than every EU country, and our homes leak heat three times faster. This means we spend more money and energy keeping our homes warm. For those who can afford to, this leads to higher carbon emissions from burning fuel. For the 3.18 million UK households (13.4%) that can’t, living in a cold home could be putting their health at risk.

Upgrading our leaky houses would help tackle the climate crisis and make sure everyone can live in a warm home. There are two aspects to this. First, we can make housing more energy efficient through things like better insulation and double- or triple-glazed windows. Second, we can replace fossil-fuel heating like gas boilers with clean alternatives like heat pumps.

Upgrading our leaky houses would help tackle the climate crisis and make sure everyone can live in a warm home.”

Retrofitting housing in this way is challenging: homes around the country have different sizes, shapes, occupants and owners. The government has made a few attempts to get to grips with our draughty homes, but for 10 years we’ve had stop-start policies without proper money to back them. The most recent is the scrapped green homes grant which aimed to give 600,000 homeowners vouchers to pay for energy-efficient home improvements. Over 120,000 people applied, but in the end the scheme only paid out 2,900 vouchers. Its failure has been attributed to chaotic management, long delays for customers and installers, and a difficult accreditation process for small retrofitting businesses.

And while the Treasury’s anxieties about the cost of decarbonising our housing are needless, the amount it costs homeowners to upgrade their own homes is not insignificant. Heat pumps can cost between £6,000 and £10,000, and older homes need extensive insulation work before they can be installed.

But these challenges don’t mean we should throw in the towel on upgrading Britain’s homes — it means we need a different approach. Our research has found that a national house retrofit programme could save families over £400 a year, cut household emissions by 21%, and create 500,000 jobs.

A collective approach would help everyone — not just people who own their own home and can afford to upgrade it.”

This government seems to be hoping that enough separate households will pull together enough money to retrofit on a mass scale. But when the government relies on vouchers like the green homes grant, it leaves the problem to individuals. A collective approach would help everyone — not just people who own their own home and can afford to upgrade it.

We need to upgrade almost all of the country’s 29m homes by 2050 — this is a massive project which could create massive numbers of jobs. But these jobs need people with the right skills to fill them: the construction workforce needs to more than double. A collective approach would make it easier to coordinate training people in the right skills to take advantage of new retrofitting jobs. And while the government can commit to providing the money to upgrade the nation’s homes, local authorities are the ones with the knowledge to carry it out in their areas.

If we want to meet the scale of the challenge, we need to begin by upgrading our social housing. Social landlords often own entire streets, blocks and estates, so we could upgrade whole areas at once. This would make it easier to use retrofitting technologies which you have to install at a large scale, like insulating building facades. Social landlords could also carry out home upgrades at the same time as other repairs, which would mean less disruption for the people living there. This would benefit everyone because government investment would build up skills and supply chains, driving down the price of retrofitting and making it more affordable for homeowners and private landlords.

Upgrading our housing collectively would mean that everyone can make sure their home is well-insulated and heated by green energy — regardless of whether we rent a council flat or own our own place. If we start to think collectively, we can make sure everyone’s homes stay warm, without heating up the planet. If warmer homes, quality jobs and no more dirty fossil fuels sound good to you, stay tuned for some big upcoming NEF work in the next month.

Image: iStock

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