To achieve net carbon zero, the housing sector faces an uphill battle [but we’re up for the challenge]

  19 April, 2021      Industry Insights
To achieve net carbon zero, the housing sector faces an uphill battle [but we’re up for the challenge]

There is no denying that the housing sector has a significant role to play in achieving the UK Government’s target of reaching net carbon zero by 2050. It will be an uphill battle, but we are up for the challenge.

The Housing Sector’s Huge Carbon Contribution

According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s independent climate advisor, buildings accounted for 18% of the UK’s carbon emissions in 2019, with only transport (24%) and industry (21%) contributing for a larger share.

We face huge challenges to ensure a coordinated effort from Government, the climate movement and the housing sector – including its’ many layers of subcontractors.”

In a progress report to parliament in June 2020 on reducing UK emissions, the CCC found that policy on buildings “needs a step change in ambition and delivery this year”, with major stakeholders hoped to drive early progress.

The prevailing “green home” principles of insulation and heating are just part of the story.

To achieve the end goal of warmer, cheaper and safer homes against this mid-century deadline to eliminate carbon emissions from society.

We face huge challenges to ensure a coordinated effort from Government, the climate movement and the housing sector – including its’ many layers of subcontractors.

Are we all on the same page re: net carbon zero?

When we consider how to coordinate our efforts, one big challenge is establishing a collective understanding of what “net carbon zero” actually means for the housing sector.

Standards in new buildings obviously play a key role.

The sector is awaiting Government amendments to Building Regulations to clarify what sustainability criteria new buildings must meet.  Currently at the consultation stage (February 2021), MCHLG’s proposed changes to Part L and Part F  have been met with strong criticism from groups such as Architects Climate Action Network (ACCN)  who feel that a focus on energy consumption is only half the story and that the embodied carbon or “whole life carbon” footprint has not been addressed.

ACCN state the latest proposed amendments are “completely inadequate in the context of the climate and ecological emergency as declared by this government, and will act as a barrier to the UK meeting its carbon emissions targets.”

Academics such as Ljubomir Jankovic, a professor of zero carbon design, (Birmingham City University) have recently argued that the current approach of building to Part L and then retrofitting in say 10 years’ time is going to cost far more overall than building right now according to “Net Zero” design principles (i.e. techniques such as hemp-lime construction).

But without a clear regulatory stance, “retrofitting” is likely to remain the dominant approach.

Establishing renewable energy best practice is another area that currently lacks clear consensus.

“For built environment businesses, understanding precisely what constitutes reputable renewable energy or carbon offsetting programmes can be complex, thus hindering progress.”

For built environment businesses, understanding precisely what constitutes reputable renewable energy or carbon offsetting programmes can be complex, thus hindering progress.

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) just launched Renewable Energy Procurement and Carbon Offsetting Guidance for #NetZeroCarbon Buildings (9.3.21) which aims to “ensure the credibility of any net zero carbon building claim” says Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive at UKGBC.

Industry reaction to this guidance is still bedding-in but the ambition is that it will support long term procurement of renewables in future construction.

Who pays for decarbonising?

Aside from building and heating responsibly, the question of what should be done to decarbonise the 29 million existing homes across the UK looms large on the agenda.

And for stakeholders such as the social housing sector in particular – accounting for some 5 million homes in the UK – [as opposed to individual homeowners,] are asking: how will this decarbonising be funded?

A recent report by Savills estimates that making social homes – net carbon zero by 2050 will cost £3.5bn/year.

However the Conservative Party 2019 manifesto pledge of £3.8bn over 10 years to decarbonise social housing, leaves a substantial shortfall.

A recent report by Savills estimates that making social homes – net carbon zero by 2050 will cost £3.5bn/year.”

The presumption must be that costs would have to be picked up by social landlords themselves although such increased overheads could have negative impact upon their overall affordability objective.

The UKGBC estimates that 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built, which emphasises the need to direct attention to decarbonising the UK’s existing building stock.

With the vast majority of social housing owned by some of the UK’s largest landlords it is already clear that, regardless of who picks up the tab, they stand to become key players to lead the country’s efforts to decarbonise significant amounts of existing housing stock.

Now is the time for renewed collaboration and shared innovation as we take on the role of forerunners in this decarbonising challenge.

Questions: skills shortages, technology, and lifestyle adjustments

Head of Partnerships at Novus Peter Hordley also highlights 3 key areas that need to be addressed as part of this conversation.

  1. Skills Shortage – There is a huge requirement to bridge the gap in the number skilled people required to deliver the net-zero carbon works. The extent of the shortage is in the region of 50,000 for social housing alone and around 250,000 for the entire housing sector. This is without mentioning the non-housing buildings. Where will this talent be found?
  2. Technology Gap – Developments that will contribute to the success of delivering net-carbon zero such as Hydrogen fuelled boilers, are still in development and pose a supply infrastructure challenge. So when is going to be the optimal time to make changes?
  3. Lifestyle – One of the biggest challenges we face moving into the decade and beyond, is the prospect of asking people to adjust their lifestyles to suit a net-zero carbon way of life. Also, there is the question of how much disruption can you reasonably expect people to put up with whilst their home is being retrofitted?

Cause for optimism

There are some major motivators to spur us on as stakeholders within the housing sector; societal concern for environmental impact has never been higher and the pandemic shows us that we can radically transform organisations and ways of working rapidly.

Environmental sustainability has been driven by collective forces dubbed the #AttenboroughEffect

Consumer research commissioned by E.On in late 2020 found that closing the intention-action gap in sustainable purchasing has been accelerated by the pandemic, with 43% stating that environmental credentials of a product or service have become more important.

And according to the Zero Carbon Campaign, 83% of the public cite climate change as being of concern.

The groundswell of societal expectations on environmental sustainability has been driven by collective forces dubbed the #AttenboroughEffect (such as David Attenborough documentaries, climate crisis campaigns, “Build Back Better” messaging and major corporates taking a visible lead).

In terms of capital too, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria is quickly gaining significance in social housing funding.

Major pension investors are driving strong and responsible investment choices. In 2019, Mutual funds that invest based on ESG criteria had surpassed $1tn, according to Morningstar, up 60% from 2012.

So, an evidenced zero-carbon policy and practice at an organisation-level stands to determine success in securing future investment.


Looking to other sectors for eco-inspiration, organisation-wide ambitions can be extended to achieve “greening” of supply chains, such as Tesco and Ikea.

The Carbon Trust are huge advocates of this and argue that developing long-term relationships with suppliers can deliver both cost and emissions savings.

Applied to the social housing sector, this would mean commitments to volume and scale of retrofitting projects, supported by policy and investment, enabling supply chains to operate at scale to develop approaches which could in turn benefit households in the private sector further down the line.

In conclusion

More clearly needs be done at an overarching policy level to define what net carbon zero will look like for our buildings of the future. And given their significant influence, social landlords are right to call for realistic targets and the financial support to achieve these.

Whilst ESG accounting should cut through any greenwash at the new-build end of the scale, societal pressure will likely drive demands for better eco credentials and contractor standards to ensure any decarbonising retrofit of the existing housing stock doesn’t jeopardise the quality of life or safety of residents.

Have a view on this issue? Join the Discussion

We would be interested in hearing your thoughts and comments around this subject matter. Please do contribute via the comments section on our LinkedIn page.

Reflecting on Housing 2024

Reflecting on Housing 2024

We’re delighted to have had a successful presence at Housing 2024, a key event in our annual calendar. The three-day event sees stakeholders from across the housing sector come together at Manchester Central to discuss and collaborate to identify solutions.


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