20 November, 2020

It’s simple really. We just need to manipulate three variables to achieve the UK government’s net zero target by 2050, all of which we already have in our control. It would mean moving to wholly renewable energy sources, weaning ourselves from harmful behaviours, and wide scale reforestation to provide a means of carbon capture. That would do it. But the dramatic impact of all of them, particularly the second two on our lifestyles and landscapes, not to mention the entire economy, means it will be very hard to achieve. So, can we look towards technological innovation to help get us there?

The problem with expecting a scientific miracle to materialise in time to save the day is that it overlooks the long gestation period from invention through development to wide scale application. It’s thought that there isn’t enough time to deploy anything that will make a substantial difference before the deadline, so we’ll have to try to get to net zero with what we know now and the many tools that are in development now.

Whilst the Paris Agreement sets out a number of objectives, net zero is a huge challenge for the residential sector where 80% of the homes we will be living in by 2050, have already been built. Housing amounted to nearly 34% of CO2 emissions last year. Whilst it’s too soon to detect a long-term pattern, the experience of working from home, forced on many by the pandemic, may continue in part as a lifestyle choice once it has passed. Add to that the proliferation of domestic technology and the transition to electric vehicles that rely on home charging and it’s clear that domestic energy consumption will rise. Some believe by as much as 70%. There is an inherent loss of scale of efficiencies in energy use if the workforce becomes more widely distributed between homes and workplaces. So, we don’t just need clean energy, we’ll need a lot more of it.

We have made progress in decarbonising the grid – although less so in the areas of hydrogen fuels and bioenergy development - and the Prime Minister’s party conference announcement promising that wind power will supply every home by 2030 signals the government’s political intent. We still lag behind in electrifying domestic heating and transport, although gas boilers will be banned in new homes from 2025. 

We know how to build thermally efficient houses and it’s always possible to incorporate new energy efficient systems when building from scratch, although build quality could be said to be holding back this progress. It’s the scale of the retrofit project that’s daunting. One estimate puts the cost at £10bn a year over a ten-year period for England alone. Previous initiatives like the Green Deal paid for home improvements if the cost was less than the value of the energy savings achieved. But who pays in the future and how? What incentives and sanctions will be needed to stimulate and maintain momentum, and what investment choices this will force us to confront at a national level are yet to be debated in full. 

For anyone owning residential property it’s time to consider the consequences of improving fabric performance and energy efficiency. Simple steps like digital energy monitoring and management are available now and can make a big difference to fuel costs and day to day energy efficiency. Adding photovoltaics, switching to low energy lighting and upgrading heating systems all make a difference. New and emerging technology will help us close the gap towards net zero but the biggest need for innovation is in the development of funding and incentive structures from government powerful enough to unleash a wide scale transformation of the UK’s housing stock. Concerns about lack of construction capacity or Grenfell style cladding miss-steps are secondary because without the national stimulus we need to get this project moving we’ll miss the deadline altogether.