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Forget government, construction clients are leading the way to Net Zero


A by-election hiccup is causing the Conservative government to start dropping its low-carbon strategies like hot potatoes.

The July vote in Uxbridge saw the Conservative majority drop by about 7%, but they held onto the seat. This unexpected win has led some in the party to point to the Labour London mayor’s ULEZ policy as the thing that saved them.

Climate-sceptic Conservatives are now claiming that carbon-reduction policies which have been years in the making need to be watered down, delayed or even dropped – lest they forfeit the General Election.

The problem is that our current Prime Minister doesn’t seem committed to these strategies enough to fight this rising tide of objections. So, the government is backing away from rules that private domestic landlords must bring properties to a minimum EPC rating of C by 2025 for new tenancies – and 2028 for continuing leases. The thinking is that landlords are facing mortgage rate rises, leaving them unable to afford energy efficiency measures.

There is also talk that the next target of these anti-green Blues is the ban on gas boilers in new homes from 2025.

The problem is that this is not simply about making private rented homes more liveable and affordable. Or even reducing the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels. It’s about support for industries that should be gearing up to meet the new demand – training heat pump engineers, for example. Businesses can’t make big commitments without firm government policies, especially as we’ve all seen this behaviour before (FiTs, anyone?)

However, I take some comfort from the fact that the government doesn’t hold all the cards, at least when it comes to improving the carbon performance of buildings. At least in the commercial sector, corporate clients are leading the way. They are setting themselves higher targets than regulations and looking for more accurate measures of energy use and carbon emissions.

Time and again, The SectorScope covers stories of corporate tenants seeking out low-carbon and energy efficient buildings. This is across offices, data centres, universities and even warehousing. In these sectors, clients regard carbon reduction (or even net zero buildings) as critical to many of these projects.

I predict that property developers and their tenants will drive interest in accurately measuring energy (and carbon) in the built environment. EPCs are not fit for that purpose (which the government has acknowledged). Instead, measures such as Energy Use Intensity (EUI) are being adopted and promoted.

EUI measures kWh/m2/pa, which is the total amount of energy used in a building each year, divided by its floor area. The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) is just one group advocating for broader use of EUI figures, not just because they offer building users a clearer picture of their energy use.

EUI provides a valuable way to prevent building owners from simply switching to green energy tariffs to lower their building carbon emissions. This is problematic because it would put too much strain on the electricity grid and our renewable generation capacity – making that 2050 target even harder to reach.

The UKGBC has recommended that building owners target a reduction of EUI from 160 kWh/m2/pa between 2020 and 2025 to 70 kWh/m2/pa. These are challenging targets that go beyond the requirements of Part L, or even updates to Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (if they remain in place for non-dwellings).

So, while the government prevaricates, the property sector is progressing at its own pace. Let’s not fool ourselves that this is a selfless action. Tenants are prepared to pay higher rents for more sustainable buildings. But I don’t think that matters as long as someone takes action.

It is to be hoped that the government has the sense to look to what the property industry is doing and sticks to its carbon reduction policies rather than losing its head over a close shave at the ballot box.

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