In the climate crisis, there is a big bloody great elephant in the room: our homes. residential housing contributes 20% of the UK’s CO2e, yet what is being done to tackle it?
The carbon linked to transport, food and buying stuff is high profile and front of mind. With these issues we can make immediate choices to de-carbon our lives: use a bike, buy an EV, fly less, stop eating beef, buy less plastic packaging, etc.
So why is residential carbon being ignored? Here are five reasons:
- This is a stonking great problem. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) says 19m UK homes need some form of de-carbon retrofit. Eight million of these homes have solid brick walls, making them expensive to insulate. The industry dances around new build standards (see below), but the already-built homes are the issue: 80% of the homes which will exist in the UK by 2050 are already built. In one study, Leeds City Council estimated an average of £24K cost per retrofit with one heat pump. That’s £456 billion.
One paradox: gas is cheap (artificially so, as the subsidy costs are loaded onto electricity bills, not gas), yet 10.3% of UK households are in ‘fuel poverty’. Cheap gas is a wicked barrier to change as lower-carbon heating tends to use electricity, so post-retrofit your bills may be the same! Fuel poverty is like the NHS: a political minefield. No politician is going to increase gas bills.
- For consumers, it is a pernicious mixture of expensive, confusing, intimidating and boring. Justunder 19m homes are owner-occupied, yet estimates are that only 1m homeowners are seen as early adopters who will voluntarily retrofit and upgrade their own homes. For context, 11,000 heat pumps were installed in 2019 against 1.7m gas boilers.
The barriers are obvious. Remedial measures such as heat pumps and external insulation are seen as expensive and there is no real payback. Also, there is ambiguity around what the right retrofit solutions are and the debate can be confusing, eg, hydrogen replacing gas, the idea of hiring and managing builders is intimidating for many and ultimately this is not a sexy area – at least buying an electric car is a novelty. Any retrofit project will soak up cash and, at best, your home might be slightly warmer and less draughty.