7 Jan 2009

Zero carbon? Stuck on page 9

This morning, I thought I’d start on the Zero Carbon Definition policy document at the front, the way you are supposed to read it. I have a nasty habit of reading documents like this back to front, or dipping into bits, or even more likely, just skimming. But this morning I decided that I would give it a proper once over as everyone says just how important it is.

But I got to page 9 and I got stuck. Hell, page 9 is just the Introduction. And I started choking on my cornflakes. This is a bad sign, because it means that the chances of me wading through to p 111 are greatly reduced, because I am already feeling grumpy before I’ve got into the main course.

Just what is it about the introduction that upsets me so much? Remember, we are only talking broad policy objectives here, but it’s the broad policy objectives that are giving me indigestion. You see, the objectives are so loaded with contradictions that they sink before you get past page 9.

Let’s start at the beginning and see where we get to before I start yelling “enough!”

Here’s the first paragraph:

1.1 Climate change is the greatest long-term challenge facing the world. Scientific evidence demonstrates the seriousness and urgency of this issue and has moved the debate conclusively from whether or not it is happening to what we need to do about it.

I agree with this 100%. It’s brief, it’s to the point and whilst there are many mealy-mouthed people around who dispute the contention that climate change is happening or, if it is, that it’s not very serious, I am not one of them.

1.2 In the UK we are responding strongly. We have put in place legislation which will require an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, relative to 1990 levels, by 2050, with legally binding five year carbon budgets governing the trajectory to our 2050 target. Following advice from the Climate Change Committee, the first set of carbon budgets, covering the five year periods 2008-12, 2013-17 and 2018-22 will be published in spring 2009.

OK. It’s a huge task, but the government has put in place a mechanism for dealing with the problem. I’ll skip to paragraph 4 for brevity’s sake.

1.4 Today almost half of the UK’s carbon emissions come from the use of buildings (27 per cent from homes and a further 17 per cent from non-domestic buildings). Responsible government means ensuring that, as we add to the overall stock of buildings, we do not add to the overall scale of the climate change problem. We have to think, ahead of time, about what we want our buildings to be like, how we want them to be used, and how we can mitigate the impact that they are likely to have, not just today, but over their lifetime.

Now if I was to quibble (and I am here to quibble), I would refer back to paragraph 2 which points out that we have a legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Here the aim has changed to one of ensuring that we don’t add to the overall scale of the problem. Surely, that’s not the point. If we are going to reduce carbon emissions by 80%, then that has to include a huge contribution from the UK’s housing stock. Like 80%? At least?

Am I missing something here?

Then the next paragraph pitches in with the government’s housing targets.

1.5 At the same time, we need to build more new homes to meet the needs of our growing number of households. Government’s annual household growth projections indicate an average household formation of 223,000 new households per year to 2026. So we need to build a large number of homes, compared to the levels witnessed over recent decades, but we need to minimise the impact of those homes on carbon emissions.

OK. It’s more of the same and regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to see me pitching in here once more. It’s these annual household growth projections which really get my goat here. The government (and the opposition) take them as an given, as if these figures were set in stone, whereas I have been arguing that they are merely an expression of an aspiration by many people to own a home of their own, which is not the same thing.

Leaving aside these arguments (I’ve already done them to death here and here and here), I just don’t think you can square these two objectives. How can you hope to reduce carbon emissions from housing by around 80% if meanwhile you are actually expanding the housing stock? It’s like trying to drive a car both forwards and backwards at the same time. It doesn’t matter how zero-carbon your new housing is, it just doesn’t make sense to be building more of it until the environmental hazard that is our existing stock is sorted out.

Following on from this, I am also worried that the consultation on this document will be mostly carried out by development professionals, all of whom have a vested interest in seeing new development go forward because that is how they make their living. Hence there will be loads of debate about the minutiae of zero carbon, carbon compliance levels and allowable solutions, that sort of thing, but almost nothing on whether this is a good time to be planning new developments at all, or whether we should be moving towards a very different kind of building industry, based on repair, rebuilding and repositioning what we already have.

8 comments:

  1. I get the impression that the 80% target has been the result of politicians ratcheting up reductions in an attempt to be seen to be doing something and to out do one another. It's been done without any idea of how such targets might be met by any sector, let alone building.

    Sadly, our policy makers very rarely have any scientific or engineering backgrounds, and the policy areas are so broad that good scientific advice is hard to compile without political bias creeping in.

    The end result is that the 'bottom' of the process - the guidelines and regulations that people must follow - become tortuous, contradictory or simply impossible to meet.

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  2. OK. It’s more of the same and regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to see me pitching in here once more. It’s these annual household growth projections which really get my goat here. The government (and the opposition) take them as an given, as if these figures were set in stone,

    Mark I love your blog but when are you going to realise that if we do not have the growth forecast by the Government and by the opposition this country will be totally ..........

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  3. ZERO CARBON ENERGY!!!

    Everything else then automittically becomes 'green' and zero carbon!

    I wish people/government whoever would put as much effort into developing large scale zero carbon power generation as they do coming up with forcasts, papers, and other general nonsense.

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  5. You cheered me up in a gallows humour sort of way.

    I got a bit past page 9 but only because I was annoyed by different bits. Then had to resort to skimming or risk loosing the will to carry on in this field.

    Re large scale renewables I think this is worth a look:

    http://withouthotair.com/synopsis10.pdf

    Can quibble about his COP assumptions for heat pumps but I like the clear analysis.

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  6. Dave HoworthMarch 09, 2009

    I sent my answers off yesterday. I tried to be sensible but struggled when the questions hadn't considered what happens when the scope is expanded to include all the existing housing, which must be included as you say. Not only is it needed to manage climate change, it's needed to avoid unjust double taxation of owners of new houses.

    Then I got to the most confusing part of the document. Page after page trying to deal with how to incorporate electricity generation and usage. Then the reason for the confusion became obvious.

    It's impossible to define a reasonable model for electricity just in the context of zero-carbon new housing. Indeed it's the reverse. You need a clear and unambiguous total electricity model before you can even begin to think about defining zero-carbon housing.

    In my opinion that means individual carbon tax/allowance and full accounting for carbon throughout the economy. There are other opinions but until we pick one and legislate it, there's no way to sensibly define zero-carbon housing.

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  7. Dave,

    Well done for getting your answers in on time. And I think your analysis of the underlying issues is spot on. As it stands, this whole consultation exercise is like re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

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  8. Dave,

    Well done for getting your answers in on time. And I think your analysis of the underlying issues is spot on. As it stands, this whole consultation exercise is like re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

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