Valuing the Planet through the Built Environment

Cutting emissions in buildings is critical to achieving net zero

December 18, 2019
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With the UN Climate Change Summit confirmed to be hosted in Glasgow next year, the UK Government will be on showcase in regard to what domestic polices and measures are in place to tackle the climate crisis.

Following the UK Parliament’s declaration of a national climate emergency earlier this year, the Government in recent months have toughened the legally binding target for net zero to 2050, with further announcements to double International Climate Finance at the UN and create a new cabinet committee on climate change. The direction of future climate change policy will be determined now we know the result of the general election—an election for which a recent Ipsos Mori poll indicated climate change was only slightly behind Brexit, health and crime on the public’s list of priorities to be addressed by the next government.

Given the built environment accounts for 40% of national energy use and approximately one-third of emissions, UK Government priorities must address the top sustainability issues within the built sector. RICS recently launched its manifesto ‘A new approach for the built and natural environment’ which calls for the new Government to put the climate, sustainable construction, placemaking and future-proofed housing policy at the forefront of the agenda. As such built environment professionals are integral in achieving these ambitions. However, the sector requires certainty to drive sustainable investment and net zero developments to achieve Government targets, and it is therefore of vital importance that any Government strategies have a clear path of financing and implementation timelines.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have warned that decarbonisation of the heat network for buildings is one the toughest challenges in climate policy, while the World Green Building Council, in line with the Paris Agreement, recommends that all new buildings must operate at net zero carbon by 2030. According to the CCC, a rapid reduction in emissions in the UK electricity sector since 2008 has masked failure to decarbonise other sectors including buildings, for which reduction in emissions over the last five years has stalled.

Cutting emissions in buildings is undoubtfully highly challenging but critical to achieving net zero. However to fully decarbonise built assets, both the operational carbon and embodied carbon over the whole life of the asset must be tackled. The built environment industry has so far been addressing mainly operational emissions via reduction targets, with the embodied aspect of carbon emissions not being fully addressed. A whole life carbon approach identifies the overall best combined opportunities for reducing lifetime emissions, and also helps to avoid any unintended consequences of focusing on operational emissions alone. To facilitate this RICS developed the ‘Whole Life Carbon Assessment for the Built Environment, 1st edition’, this professional statement mandates a whole life approach to reducing carbon emissions and promotes the reliability of whole life carbon assessments by acting as a solid reference for industry. Earlier this year, RICS launched the whole life Building Carbon Database which reinforces the RICS professional statement and allows users to identify where associated carbon emission reductions can be made, during all stages of a building's life cycle.

Critical to achieving energy efficiency ambitions within buildings, is both an incentive for owners to retrofit and the professional skills capacity within industry. Domestic buildings are alone responsible for around 20% of the UK’s carbon emissions, and in recognition of this RICS continue to call for Government to reduce the VAT regime for home repairs, maintenance and improvement work, including on labour and materials. Reducing VAT could provide a boost in the adoption of a range of retrofitting measures across the housing sector and encourage homeowners to take a whole- life perspective of the built asset.

Chartered surveyors and built environment professionals are integral to the refurbishment and retrofit sector, ranging from assessment of dwellings to the identification, specification and evaluation of energy efficiency measures. Government must therefore support the built environment industry in its growth of skills base and talent pipeline. RICS strongly support any efforts to tackle climate change and bolster skills shortages which will compliment the work we are already doing - through our ‘Value the Planet’ campaign - to encourage and support employers in reducing the impact of their operations on the environment.

RICS will continue to champion and support both the low carbon transition and resilience capacity building agenda through the introduction of new global standards and professional expert guidance across both the built and natural environment.

Read the new housing supplement in full