John Gummer, UK Climate Change Committee chair

Housebuilders should be “ashamed of themselves” for failing to build to high energy efficiency standards, according to UK government climate change watchdog chair John Gummer, a former Conservative environment secretary.

The comments were made last week following the release of the Climate Change Committee’s new progress report on the UK’s emission targets, with Gummer adding it was “ridiculous” that inefficient housing is still being built.

“The industry should be ashamed of itself that it is still producing homes that are cheating the people they sell to,” said Gummer, who now sits in the House of Lords as Lord Deben.

“If you don’t produce a properly insulated home, you put a burden on the purchaser and the next purchaser for the rest of time in terms of their energy bills.”

He followed this up on the BBC’s Today news program by adding: “Every one of the big housebuilders are selling a future of expensive energy because they do not make their homes properly environmentally friendly.”

This produced a defensive reaction from some, and a guilty plea from others.

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, called Gummer’s comments “ill-judged” and “not borne out by the facts”.

“Housebuilders have met every government environmental target such that new homes are considerably more energy efficient than existing homes,” he said, a statement directly challenged by evidence in the Climate Change Committee’s report.

Robin Nicholson, senior partner at Cullinan Studio, said the built environment’s impact on climate change has become “marginalised” and lamented the demise of the Labour Government’s Code for Sustainable Homes, whose “brilliance”, he said, “was that it set out a clear timetable to ramp up towards zero carbon homes in five defined steps and the industry responded”.

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, called on the government to set out a pathway to make all new buildings genuinely net-zero carbon by 2030.

UK failing on climate change

Published 10 years after the Climate Change Act came into force, the Climate Change Committee’s new report, Reducing UK emissions – 2018 Progress Report to Parliament, is especially damning on the housing, transport and industry sections, while congratulating the power sector for significant decarbonisation.

It points out that insulation rates are 95 per cent lower than they were in 2012, not helped by lacking support for a program that involves insulating existing homes and the cancellation of the Zero Carbon Homes policy in 2014.

Professional standards and skills across the building and heat supply trades, it says, are not fit for purpose, and a nationwide training program to upskill the existing workforce along with an increased focus on incentivising high “as-built” performance is required.

The report came out in the same week that the government cancelled support for a world-first tidal-power lagoon in Swansea and greenlighted a new runway at Heathrow in a statement which made no reference to climate change – an oversight that was widely criticised.

By focusing on the economy rather than environmental matters the Conservative government has gone backwards on climate change – also facing action over illegal levels of air pollution in England – ignoring advice that the green economy can provide jobs and boost the economy.

Building sector slammed

Taking weather factors into account, emissions from the building sector have increased in the last two years. Home insulation rates have fallen, with just 123,000 lofts or walls being insulated. They are at just five per cent of the peak of market delivery in 2012. The absence of loft insulation adds around £105 (AU$188) a year to home energy bills.

Annual insulation installation rates 2008-2017

Only around 4.5 per cent of heating for buildings comes from low carbon sources, mostly biomass. Meanwhile, the domestic heat pump market remains stagnant at under one per cent of annual heating system sales due to the reduction in support for renewable heat.

The report therefore slams the government for its lack of firm policy commitments and for deliberately ignoring additional cost effective abatement opportunities of six megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030 over and above the current policy ambition – which the Climate Change Committee previously advised the government about.

Compliance and enforcement should be a priority area for action and the committee is not alone in attacking the government for ignoring this. The Hackitt Review (commissioned by government following the Grenfell Tower fire to make recommendations on the regulatory system) concluded in May, finding that “what is being designed is not what is being built”, and similarly calling for stronger compliance and enforcement procedures with heavy penalties to be extended beyond fire safety to wider building regulations.

While the government has announced a new program of energy-efficient house building with low carbon heat to be achieved by 2030, the committee says these new homes must also be future-proofed for the changing climate.

On retrofitting, the report cites success in Scotland that could be replicated in England. There, policy certainty has driven innovation and growth, with public reporting mechanisms helping to benchmark public and commercial buildings.

The committee also argues that cost-effective and “no-regret” opportunities exist for heat pumps for buildings that are off the gas grid and for low carbon heat networks in areas of dense building, as well as increasing the volume of biomethane injection into the gas grid, because the current reliance on natural gas is incompatible with long-term decarbonisation.

To achieve this the report calls for detailed plans to phase out the installation of high-carbon fossil fuel heating in the 2020s.

The Climate Change Committee’s indicators for the building sector.

Of the 2017 indicators, progress is lagging as follows:

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The government currently has only an “aspiration” for as many homes as possible to reach band C on the Energy Performance Certificate rating scheme by 2035 “where practical, cost-effective and affordable”.

This is failing to drive uptake of energy efficiency measures in existing buildings and the committee is calling for “concrete policies” to be published to achieve this as soon as possible, as well as the closure of loopholes for landlords that allow them to avoid making energy efficiency improvements to the buildings occupied by their tenants.

High Court case

These citizens are taking the UK government to court over climate change.

The government is also in the dock in a case due to be heard in the High Court on Wednesday 4 July being brought by private individuals (above) to address climate change in a way that not even the Paris Agreement or popular opinion has so far done. The case follows a wave of similar action against governments and corporations around the world.

The claimants will argue the government’s failure is “illegal, irrational and a breach of their fundamental human rights” and the High Court will decide whether their claim may go to full trial.

World leading climate scientist James Hansen thinks the case could have “a big impact on the whole global situation” and it has the support too of the government’s own former chief scientist, Sir David King, and a group of leading doctors.

Like all governments, the UK is not on track for meeting its commitments under the Paris Agreement. The UK has a reputation for being a world leader, but these events significantly question the authority of this status.

David Thorpe’s two new books are Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Solar Energy Pocket Reference. He’s also the author of Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.