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Zero Carbon Homes By 2016 Environmental Sciences Essay

To take measures against Climate change, the UK government announced in 2006 that all new homes would be zero carbon by 2016. The built environment represent 40% of total UK energy consumption and by 2050 one third of houses will have been built since 2006. Therefore, in achieving zero carbon homes by 2016, the UK will significantly decrease its carbon emissions and will moreover be able to reach its other environmental targets. However, while the government tries to implement zero carbon by 2016 in using an incremental approach and proposing economical benefits, the target has been highly criticized by the build environment sector. Criticisms have highlighted the unclear definition, the high cost of such houses and the lack of clear guidelines from the government. However builders must start acting toward the target as the deadline is rapidly approaching.

Key Words: Zero Carbon, Government, Building

1. Introduction

It is becoming impossible to ignore climate change and the matter now presents global risks (Stern, 2006). If swift actions are not taken, the average temperature of the planet is likely to increase which will lead to important transformations of our continents. As a result, Stern (2006) suggests that governments must react rapidly and effectively to the greenhouse gas emissions, which are the main actor in the global warming, in order to counter the cost of disasters. Indeed, no reaction to the climate change can cost up to 20% of global GDP, against 1% if governments take actions (Stern, 2006 cited in Department for Communities and Local Government , 2006, p7). Although it is arguable that a potential cost of the global warming is difficult to evaluate, it is unquestionably that the earlier actions are taken, the more affordable it will be. The United Kingdom has already consented to several environmental directives such as the Kyoto protocol, which aims at cutting UK carbon emissions by 12,5% below the 1990 level during the period 2008-2012, and the 2003 Energy White Paper (Department of Trade and Industry, 2003) which announced that the United Kingdom will reduces its carbon emissions by 60% from 2003 level by 2050, and with a ‘real progress’ by 2020.

The United Kingdom confronts an important issue regarding its energy consumption and its resources. The availability of British fossil fuel resources leads the country in difficulties to supply the necessary amount of energy for it needs. While British’s resources are running out, the global demand for primary energy is soaring. By 2020, Britain will be highly dependents on other countries, which is politically and economically more difficult to manage. McCarthy (2010) highlights the important fact that a quarter of coal and nuclear power stations may close by 2020, as nuclear power plants become old and coal-fired plants fail to meet new EU air pollution laws. Therefore, the United-Kingdom must reduce its energy consumption to avoid an energy gap.

In order to decrease the amount of energy used, the country has targeted the built environment sector. Indeed, according to the European Commission (2005), the house sector represents 40% of total energy consumed within the UK, and 29% of the total UK carbon emissions (Department of Trade and Industry, 2005). Due to the demographic increase and too few homes to meet demand (Kate Barker, 2004), new houses will have to be built and those figures are likely to increase. In 2050, the houses that would have been built between 2006 and 2050 will represent one third of the total houses, as affirmed the Department for Communities and Local Government DCLG (2006). Therefore, on completion to such energy reduction targets, zero-carbon home by 2016 appear to be a key goal. The UK will not only be independent on other countries’ resources, it will also be the first country to achieve objective. This commitment will also lead to lower energy bills and warmer house.

To fulfil this previous statement, Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published in December 2006 Building a Greener future: Towards Zero Carbon Development (DCLG, 2006) to provide more details regarding the measures the government will undertake to achieve zero carbon homes by 2016. It includes building and planning rules as well as a new system to evaluate house sustainability. In addition Gordon Brown has included financial compromises in the 2006 and 2007 Pre Budget Report to encourage the public to reach the target.

This paper presents several actions implemented by the governments, as well as the major barriers such as the definition of zero carbon, the economical feasibility and the necessity of guidelines. Finally, it will also explain the reason for the builders to swiftly move toward the target.

Figure . Energy demand by sector, Source: Departement of Trade and Industry (2005)

2. Government’s plan

Building a Greener Future: Towards Zero Carbon Development (DCLG, 2006) focuses on the 2016 UK government target for zero carbon homes and introduces the Code for Sustainable Homes, the Building Regulations and the planning system. This consultation document links these policies around three steps, which are designed to help the government reach the target within ten years. The first one is to reduce carbon emissions by 25% by 2010 from their 2006 level; the second is to reduce emissions by 44% by 2013; and the third and final step is to achieve zero carbon houses by 2016. According to the Building Regulations, this respectively corresponds to code levels 3, 4 and 6.

The government notes that overcoming economic issues is key to achieve the target. As building zero-carbon houses is much more expensive than building traditional homes, the government implements financial compromises such as the Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) and the Clean Energy Cashback.

Following the announcement in 2006, The Treasury (2007) introduced the Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) regulations and made them applicable to most new zero-carbon house. At first acquisition, zero carbon homes which cost less than £500,000 will be exempt from the Stamp duty land tax. For more expensive dwellings, the tax will be reduced by £15,000. This exemption is unquestionably essential to reduce the high cost of a zero carbon homes and to encourage people in demanding such houses. Nevertheless, this financial concession is only for a limited time (up to October 2012), and nowadays the technologies and the cost of zero carbon houses are too high to meet a great demand zero carbon houses by 2012. This cost is arguably even more of an issue in the current climate of cuts and economic downturn.

Another scheme the government has adopted is the Clean Energy Cashback, as an incentive to encourage the use of renewable energies (Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2010). It consists in compelling power companies to pay for remaining electricity from renewable energies at a higher rate than electricity from fossil fuel. Indeed, too few people were attracted by investing in renewables as the cost is higher than traditional electricity. Thereby, the law convinces investors since it ensures a return and even an ‘energy income’ on a long term basis. Following its implementation, the number of people investing in renewable energies strongly increased according to the Clean Energy Cash Back Information (2009).

zero carbon homes target is a very focused purpose in terms of benefit for both the householder and the developer. As aforementioned stated, householders of a zero carbon house are entitled to the Clean Energy Cashback and are entirely independent in energy, which is a great advantage as fossil fuel costs constantly increase. On developers’ side, Osmani and O’Reilly (2009) concluded that the government policy plays a key role in competitiveness and dynamism of the built environment market. Indeed, World Wide Fund (2005) report underlined that builders who succeed in developing very high sustainable houses increase both their reputation and their market share. This thought is also shared with Carter (2006) who adds that the companies are likely to attract the most skilled employees. Those positive effects are all the more interesting as they also concern the reputation of the UK developers against the foreign ones who will soon have to meet the same target.

Despite all the decisions and actions taken by the government, 76% of the UK sectors of the development industry do not believe the target is realistic (Taylor Wessing, 2010). Therefore it is interesting to evaluate the main obstacles to the target.

Figure . Key barriers to zero carbon homes, Source: Osmani, and O’Reilly (2009)

3. Zero carbon definition

There have been various and arguably unclear definitions for zero carbon homes. DCLG defines it as “over a year, the net carbon emissions from energy use in the home would be zero” (DCLG, 2006, p3) . It means that the carbon emissions balance between the energy used and the energy produced is zero (Hernandez & Kenny, 2009). This consultation document implicitly refers to the Code for Sustainable Homes (CHS) for more details on the definition (UK Green Building Council, 2008).

The general definition embodies the energy consumed within the dwellings such as space heating, water heating, ventilation and appliances; and the contribution of energy from renewable energies. DCLG (2008, p10) underlined that it is necessary to “choose from a range of (mainly offsite) solutions for tackling the remaining emissions.” Also, the energy used for export/import of energy from/to centralised systems must be taken into account in the carbon emissions balance.

The key problem with the definition was not about the energy consumed, but about the origin of the energy coming into the dwelling. This problem is fully explained by the UK Green Building Council (2008): in its definition, in March 2007 the Treasury department excludes off-site renewables that was not directly connected to the dwelling, while the CHS includes them. As a result, Communities and Local Government revised its definition in July 2007 to fit with the Treasury department and published a new version of the CHS in October 2007. To conclude, the government only considers onsite and offsite energy supply when it is directly link to the dwelling. The fact that zero carbon was not distinctly defined during 11 months caused major issues for built environment actors to start taking measures.

Although government seemed to have reached a common definition, it does not suit to the public. Firstly, Lowe and Oreszczyn (2008) reveal a key problem with the distinction between offsite and onsite renewable energies. While wind farm provides offsite energy, biomass that burns in the dwelling is considered as onsite energy. However, most of the biomass is produced out of the property, and therefore it should count as offsite renewable. Thus, an important question is why there is a difference between energy that reaches the site by wire and the one that comes with a lorry (Lowe & Oreszczyn, 2008). Secondly, as there are numerous controversies with the European commission about the private wire system (The Chartered Institute of Building, 2008) and that, for some renewable energies such as solar and win, it is more affordable and more efficient to supply energy from centralised systems, all types of energies should be accepted for zero carbon home.

As a result the government must revise its definition of zero carbon homes if it wants to achieve the target. The Chartered Institute of Building (2008) even reveals that 80% of the new houses will not reach the target by 2016 on the basis of the current government zero carbon homes’ approach. The Housing Minister promised in May 2010 that a new and precise definition would be given ‘soon’ (Greenwise Staff, 2010).

4. Economical feasibility

4.1. Economical barrier

House builders are concerned about the cost and the way to finance zero carbon houses. The lack of data to evaluate the cost of such houses and the lack of financial incentives are considered as a significant to major barrier for 78% and 65% of interviewed house builders respectively Osmani, and O’Reilly (2009). In Building a Greener future: Towards Zero Carbon Development (DCLG, 2006), the government announce that the cost for a zero carbon house should raises by only 4 to 7% from a conventional house. However the cost for improving efficiency of buildings and integrating renewable energies to a dwelling is considering as a major issue. Frank (2010) even notes that cost for decentralised system is significant and developers can not support it without a new and inventive financial scheme. Including offsite energy supply is financially interesting since it would reduce the price of the house as Osmani, and O’Reilly (2009) remark. Regarding the small centralised systems for few zero carbon houses, there are financially difficulties to implement as the remaining questions will concern the way to finance and administer them. In addition to the high cost of zero carbon houses, Williams (2009, p1) declares “There has not been adequate investment in the technologies, supporting services and infrastructure needed to deliver zero- carbon housing.”

To overcome the financial barrier, new schemes such as the energy community fund have to be implemented.

4.2. Energy Community Fund

In Green Homes 2010, Frank (2010) maintains that the saving from energy efficiency and the use of renewable energies would account for only 70% of reduction of carbon emissions. The remaining 30% can be achieved by including offsite energy and/or by investing in an Energy Community Fund. This prospect was first suggested by the UK Green Building Council (2008), and then studied by the government (July 2010). It consists in establishing an “allowable solution” (Frank, 2010, p5), depending on the remaining carbon emissions, and then investing in carbon reduction projects.

The Energy Community Fund principle allows more flexibility to the developers to meet their commitments since it enable them to pay funds instead of delivering very expensive on-site renewable systems. This fund scheme appears to be an attractive solution to all economic issues to deliver zero carbon homes by 2016 as long as it is both fully described and efficiently administered. Frank (2010) noticed that it is essential to evaluate the amount of the “allowable solution” (Frank, 2010, p5) depending on criteria such as the size of the house. The Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, has expressed he would establish an Energy Community Fund (Tiller, 2010), however dates have not been fixed.

5. Necessity of clear guidelines

Zero carbon homes by 2016 represents a large challenge for the UK, and therefore requires guidelines to be achieved. As Frank(2010, p4) emphasizes in his study, to move from a post-war centralised system to a major decentralised one, “a national renewable strategy” must be implemented. While guidelines are essential to succeed in meeting the target, 63% of interviewed house builders confess they do not significantly understand the government’s requirements (Osmani & O’Reilly, 2009). This high percentage is closely linked to the significant number of policies, which leads the house builders to confusion. 68% of the interviewees declare they do not totally understand the government’s requirements (Osmani & O’Reilly, 2009). Lowe and Oreszczyn (2008) underlined the fact that zero carbon homes project involves four government departments, and therefore it does not help in having clear directions. Indeed, the Business Enterprise Regulatory Reform (BERR) is involved in building construction research, the Communities and Local Government (DCLG) elaborates the building regulations, DEFRA is in charge of the Standard Assessment Procedure for Energy rating of Dwelling in addition of providing most of the data relating to carbon, and finally the Treasury deals with the budget. Communication and management between the departments is weak and leads to unclear decisions. One of the most relevant samples of it is certainly the definition of zero carbon. Another example is the first consultation document related to the government’s target, Building a Greener future: Towards Zero Carbon Development (DCLG, 2006), which only describes the sub-target for 2010, 2013 and then 2016 without offering much direction regarding the way to achieve the target.

Firstly, the government should clarify the policy regarding energy efficiency, as it is absolutely necessary to improve buildings in order to reduce the consumption of energy. The more efficient a building is, the less energy is needed and the less carbon is released. The knowledge about energy efficiency is constantly increasing and the government should clearly integrate them in the Building Regulations if house builders have to perform high quality buildings. This is what Lowe and Oreszczyn (2008, p5) underlined in their report with “researchers and campaigners have spent the last 30 years urging the government to take action to improve energy efficiency in this sector.” An important question is whether the Building Regulations of October 2010 gives more details to improve energy efficiency in house builders’ point of view.

When house builders are skilled enough to deliver buildings with high energy efficiency, it is possible to pay attention to the integration of renewable energy (Frank, 2010). As shown previously renewable energies are expensive and therefore it is important to choose the most efficient renewable supply depending on various criteria such as the location, the size of the house etc. However house builders are not skilled enough to choose the appropriate one as they are not expert in the subject. Builders and other various actors of the built environment are not trained to deliver zero carbon homes. 76% of the interviewed builders admit they have a lack of confidence in green technologies to develop zero carbon homes (Osmani & O’Reilly, 2009).

6. Built environment

Despite all the challenges involved, the government keeps the target in mind and plans to pass a law in 2016 which will require that every new home should be zero carbon. Developers are complaining about the ‘unfeasibility” of such a target and announce that the deadline is far too close. But the 2016 target is not a sudden announcement, developers were offered 10 years to achieve zero carbon homes, which should be enough since there are sufficient new and various technologies for low and zero carbon dwellings. Considering developer’s arguments, the commitment can not be met by 2016, nor can it by few years later. Postponing the deadline will only lead to more severe actions that will have to be undertaken to reduce carbon emissions in the future.

From a technical point of view, it was been shown than zero carbon homes are achievable since such houses have already been built. A major remaining barrier emphasized by developers is the economical feasibility. Undoubtedly, the more houses have to be built, the more UK builders are involved. This will lead to the increase of the competitiveness, and then to the increase of efficiency of the renewables, the materials and the various actors involved in the built environment. As a consequence, the cost of zero carbon homes will reduce. It is important to note that the government has planned to augment the number of new houses by 200,000 every year by 2016 (DCLG, 2006). Therefore, it is a particularly good moment to make zero carbon homes cost decreasing.

It is unquestionably the case that the 2016 target has a real and important impact on the development companies, and therefore may complicated their way of functioning. Nevertheless, as discussed, the government’s target will also boost the built environment. Moreover, all European developers will soon have to front with the zero carbon principle; thus, the swifter the UK builders become skilled, the better it is to face the market efficiently. As a result, it is worth having to reorganise the company’s operational system promptly in order to have a long-term reputation and a secure market.

Although zero carbon homes by 2016 is a very high challenge, significant efforts and improvements are possible as they happens in other European countries such as Scandinavia, or Germany (Frank, 2010).

7. Conclusion

To conclude, zero carbon homes by 2016 is a great and interesting target that would place the United Kingdom at the top of the ‘green countries’. In addition to the important reputation of the country and its builders, meeting the commitment will also allow the United Kingdom to reach its other environmental targets.

While the UK government has taken several actions about zero carbon homes by 2016, the target is not likely to be easily reached. From a feasibility point of view, the process should first focus on energy efficiency and then on the use of renewable energies.

However, unfortunately this ostensibly simple process presents a significant number of obstacles. Regarding the economical feasibility, zero carbon homes are definitely too expensive for both the builders and the buyer. Although the government implements financial compromises, it is not enough to reach the target, especially if the Stamp Duty Land Tax is applicable until 2012 only. Moreover, it is essential to find new financial and economical schemes, such as the Energy Community Fund, if the government wants to achieve its target. It is also important that all government’s decisions are well understood by the builders.

The incremental approach proposed by the government is the best way to make people move toward zero carbon homes. However, this approach is inefficient since the legislations on the matter are too numerous and lead to confusion. Builders need guidelines on technical, financial and legislation point of view.

The government’s decisions play a key role as it was also shown with the issue of having a clear definition of zero carbon homes. It seems that the commitment will only be reach by 2016 if the government accepts to include offsite renewable energies in the definition. Because the definition has not been clear for a significant time, the builders have been slow in moving toward projects of zero carbon houses. However it is important that the builders make up for lost time as fast as possible.

Finally, while meeting the target on time seems unrealistic, both the builders and the government should work together and take effective measures if they want to move to zero carbon homes by 2016.

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