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Eliminating building emissions is the ‘greatest challenge’

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Despite reports to the contrary, the citizens’ assembly on climate change is considering the impact of construction, says Jenny Hill, head of buildings and international action at the Committee on Climate Change

It’s now six months since 30,000 letters went out to households in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland inviting people to join the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate change. 

Climate Assembly UK was commissioned by six House of Commons select committees to explore public preferences on what the UK can do to reach the legally-binding target of net zero emissions by 2050 and how that goal can be achieved.

The construction and built environment sector is responsible for 35-40 per cent of UK carbon emissions. Eliminating emissions from buildings is both essential for meeting the net zero target and, in my view, the single greatest challenge we face. 

Perhaps more than anything, it is an area which will be shaped by people’s personal needs and preferences for comfortable and desirable places to live. And the good news is that, despite earlier reports, the built environment was a live thread through our planning for Climate Assembly UK.

A wide team of climate specialists, business leaders, economic experts and civil society organisations are involved in Climate Assembly UK to ensure balance and accuracy. Expert leads, an advisory panel, an academic panel and Involve, the UK’s leading public participation charity, are all part of the mix along with the support of the UK’s prominent business, faith and civil society leaders. 

Expertise on buildings and construction are a critical element of this team. My job at the Committee on Climate Change is to manage our buildings and international work programmes, setting out decarbonisation pathways to 2050, tracking progress and providing expert advice to governments in the UK and abroad. I’ve also led our industry and biomass programmes for several years, shaping our advice on all aspects of the challenge, from whole-life cycle emissions to fuel poverty. 

My role in Climate Assembly UK was supporting the expert leads. Together with Professor Rebecca Willis, we designed a programme for assembly members which included views from a range of energy, built environment and policy professionals along with academic experts such as Professor Nick Eyre from the University of Oxford. 

A large part of the focus was on policy approaches and delivery bodies to enable two full days of deliberation on key issues including technology mixes and the broad set of policy levers. In the group work on ‘in the home’, we focussed on low-carbon retrofit, in particular low-carbon heating, where our understanding of the pathway is still evolving. Under a section called ‘what we buy’, assembly members considered evidence on how policy-makers can make the economy less resource and carbon intensive, including in the built environment. 

Coronavirus has, rightly, changed our plans temporarily. With the determination of the assembly members, our work moved online and continues through video conferencing. It will draw to a close very shortly with the assembly’s report to parliament due in the summer. 

Climate Assembly UK includes more than a hundred people who were selected from different regions, age groups, genders and ethnicities, and with differing attitudes to climate change, ensuring a representative sample of the UK’s population. It’s quite a thing to present to all its members and see a cross-section of UK citizens looking back at you.

During the assembly’s first weekend, several questions were asked about fairness; about who should do most to address climate change and how the actions the UK takes are fairly distributed across generations and income groups.

In one exchange, Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, was asked: ’Who gets to decide what is fair?’ His answer to the assembly was short and clear: ‘You do.’

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