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Footprint: Carbon targets

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The Energy Bill may well be watering down carbon targets, but we should still aim high, says Hero Bennett

From council of perfection to difficult but doable, we now find ourselves with a zero-carbon target that doesn’t feel like a target at all. The latest incarnation of the zero-carbon definition – slipped into the recent Budget appendix and new Energy Bill – has lost what the previous definition had: a perspective sufficiently broad to include the many groups and targets stringent enough to demand innovative thinking. Where did it all go wrong? And what should we be doing instead?

In 2007 the Labour government announced the zero-carbon target for new dwellings and new non-domestic buildings. In one notable episode, it was even said to be a ‘moral duty’ to deliver zero carbon. But in the last four years only 30 out of 18,000 rated dwellings have actually achieved Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6, which requires zero-carbon energy emissions annually. They’re super sustainable, and super unattainable on a national level. We just won’t build the number of new homes needed that way.

The trouble was, this felt too far away from where we were. An unattainable target isn’t very motivating to anyone except the already committed.

Then Allowable Solutions were introduced. They have the potential to secure carbon savings away from the site through other green initiatives that benefit the whole community. With this new addition, there was encouragement to consider reducing embodied carbon, greening existing buildings and funding the decarbonisation of the energy grid. All of which are problems that need to be solved to make a significant impact on the UK’s total carbon footprint.

The Building Regulations cover heating, fixed lighting, hot water and building services. The impact of consumer goods’ electrical load – TVs, computers, white goods, phones, electric toothbrushes and the rest – is deemed too difficult to deal with. The building industry is supposed to brush it under the carpet and leave it up to consumers and the goods manufacturers to worry about. The industry generalisation is that this unregulated energy load will be around one third of total domestic energy consumption. Our experience tells us that it is likely to be higher, especially with super-insulated new buildings.

It’s fair to say that building occupiers should take responsibility for the energy they use. They should indeed; but what’s vital is teaching them about the effect their actions and appliance use has on their energy consumption. Everyone needs to buy into a more sustainable future.

The main thing that the original zero-carbon target did was to at least provide some direction. You might never actually get there, but you could see where it was and it was possible to head for it. I’m really glad the government is sticking to the national targets – that’s important. But we should be drawing that determination down to domestic targets too. Otherwise we might solve the problem of the shortage of new homes, without making any inroads into building a long-term sustainable future.

It’s such a pity. Work was completed by the Zero Carbon Hub to develop a fair target; one in which everyone got involved and helped shape what the definition should be. The Hub reached some practical conclusions about how much energy can realistically be produced onsite for different dwelling types. There’s a feeling of balance about that and it sounds fair.

So could the previous government’s ambition – one that most of us had already come to terms with – be achieved by 2016? Probably not. Should we still be trying to achieve it? Most definitely. There’s a huge education and communication job to do to get people to change their energy-using habits – don’t leave the TV on all day, switch off your broadband router when you power down, pull out the clothes-horse to dry laundry instead of using the tumble dryer. Small actions get more significant in the larger context of achieving a goal.

So what should we do? I think we should drop the idea of zero carbon. It’s misleading, hard to pin down and distracting. We should adopt the Zero Carbon Hub recommendations. We’re sticking to our national carbon targets; now the government should work towards an intelligent approach to Allowable Solutions and encourage collaborative investment.

Something has to be done in the next decade if we want to make a real difference. Even if we miss the targets we’ll still be better off than we are now.

  • Hero Bennett is sustainability consultant at Max Fordham
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