Skip to main content
Close Menu Open Menu

Conservation measures in the built environment are needed more than ever to fight climate change

By Tony Lloyd-Jones, Reader in International Planning and Sustainable Development, University of Westminster

According to government statistics, residential and business uses each account for 18% of all carbon emissions and transport for 33%.[1] These figures relate to emissions by source, treating energy as a separate sector. The use of these statistics reflects the government’s policy focus on carbon reduction in power production as the main plank of efforts to address climate change. This is to the relative detriment of energy efficiency and resource conservation measures in other sectors that should form a key element in any effective decarbonisation strategy. These must be included to achieve the required impact in addressing the climate change emergency, given global heating is occurring far more rapidly than previously predicted.[2]

Overall emissions from the energy sector at 27% of the total were 68% lower in 2018 than in 1990. This reduction results largely from the switch from coal to gas but (un)natural gas (as opposed to biogas) is still a fossil fuel and involves pumping carbon stored in the ground over millennia into the atmosphere. More recently, investment in renewables, especially offshore wind, has begun to pay off, with 2019 being the first year since the Industrial Revolution that zero-carbon, both renewable and nuclear power overtook fossil fuel power generation.[3]  Despite these successes, squeezing more benefits from the energy revolution will become more challenging and involve time that we don’t have to play with.

With regard to the figures for emissions by end user, the contribution of buildings and the built environment to carbon emissions is much higher than indicated above. The 18% for residential use is basically gas for heating and cooking. This figure has fallen by 16% between 1990 and 2018, a significant fall attributed to more efficient energy use. However, previously ambitious requirements for energy efficiency in buildings, have been scaled back, especially in existing buildings. The only accessible support for retrofitting at the moment, except for those on some kind of benefit, is the smart meters programme. All previous government programmes in this respect have proved ineffective with subsidies for insulation measures, feed-in tariff for solar panels having fallen short and/or by the wayside.

Although heating is the main energy use in housing, the 18% for residential doesn’t count electricity use for lighting, appliances etc. “The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) states that 18% of UK carbon emissions come from buildings – most of them homes – with a further 15% of emissions coming from electricity consumed in buildings. Many analysts have suggested that given the difficulty of saving carbon in other sectors we are likely to need to come close to a complete decarbonisation of our building stock by 2050.”[4] The Energy Savings Trust argues for building millions of new homes to achieve this aim.[5] However, this discounts the carbon emissions from all the related house building, with cement production being one of the current major offenders.[6]

According to the U.K. Green Building Council, on the other hand, the built environment, as a whole, accounts for 40% of carbon emissions.[7] As it notes: “Newly constructed buildings are more energy efficient, but 80% of buildings in 2050 have already been built, so a major priority is decarbonising our existing stock. Yet government policies aimed at improving the efficiency of existing buildings have scaled back dramatically, and insulation installation rates have stalled.” There needs to be a major programme of grants for retrofitting existing buildings like the conversion grants of the 1970s. Post-slum clearance, this helped transform the remaining run down, inner city housing stock.

Experts are calling on the government to prioritise a green economic recovery from the Covid-19 outbreak. The Committee on Climate Change is advising there should be a “focus on low-carbon work programmes to generate new job” including supporting low carbon infrastructure and insulating houses.[8] The Labour Party, having failed to get elected and implement an ambitious Green New Deal, is having another go,calling for the creation of a “zero-carbon army of young people” to work in green industries.[9] The Lib Dems are proposing £150bn should be invested in green projects over three years, noting that “properly insulating homes was vital for meeting existing green targets.”[10] Internationally, there is widespread agreement that the recovery from the pandemic offers a unique opportunity to assist in transitioning to a greener economy but there is little sign as yet that the UK government is thinking strategically along these lines.

In all this, decarbonising electricity supply should certainly remain a high priority – globally – but we also need to seriously promote energy conservation in existing buildings as well decarbonising fuel in vehicles until present fleets are eventually replaced by electric vehicles. The oil industry continues to eat up the future with carbon emissions and plastic waste. Twenty firms produce one third of all carbon emissions. Apart from one of two coal producers these are all oil companies.[11] 

As far as building improvements are concerned there are measures that could be implemented immediately. The anomaly continues to exist whereby new build is zero VAT, while home improvements for the most part attract 20% VAT. Supplying and installing energy-saving materials and equipment qualifies for a reduced VAT rate but this still puts climate friendly improvements to existing buildings at a disadvantage to new build. The government could do more to promote “green leases” whereby owners and tenants agree “specific responsibilities/obligations with regards to the sustainable operation/occupation of a property, for example: energy efficiency measures, waste reduction/ management and water efficiency.”[12]













Tony Lloyd-Jones

Tony Lloyd-Jones is an architect, and urban planner and designer. He is Reader in International Planning and Sustainable Development in the School of Architecture and Cities at the University of Westminster in London, where he is Director of the Max Lock Centre international and sustainable development research unit. Tony has conducted policy-related research in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South East Asia and Latin America over a number of years, as well as urban sustainability-related projects in the UK and Europe.  This included ‘Retrofitting Soho: Improving the Sustainability of Historic Core Areas’, an EU policy study on Urban Design for Sustainability and exploring the climate change challenges of the European housing legacy for the European retrofit network.

Back to top