What can we do locally to reduce climate change and enhance the local environment?

I was invited to the Chiswick Area Forum on Oct 12th to present my ideas on the environment and provoke a debate. I didn’t know that later that week the government would make key announcements on home heating – hence why it may look strange to have called the issue the ‘blind spot! However I think many of my comments are still, if not more, valid in the current times.


A provocation: What can we do at a local level to effect change,

- Making a positive impact on carbon dioxide emissions,

- Creating a better local environment?

It is my privilege to stand here as a civil engineer, to give a very practical view point on what we can do to make a difference to carbon emissions and create a better local environment. I have nearly 30 years experience in my career as a designer of buildings and infrastructure for Arup. My projects include the Aquatics Centre at the London 2012 Olympic Park, Crossrail, and a rural primary school in Tanzania.

As an engineer I am focussed on solutions; a big part of how we solve the climate emergency will be new technology, but also adaption.

A big part of what we can do is around transport – such as less dependence on private cars, cleaner buses and trains; but I understand that you are all pretty well versed in much of that. I can’t talk about everything so I chose a less discussed topic; housing. In particular I believe that we have a climate ‘blind spot’ and that’s something I want to take about today.

The problem; heating our homes

Domestic heating accounts for around 14% of UK CO2 emissions. This is in the context of 40% of all carbon emissions coming from buildings overall. Most people don’t realise this, and therefore don’t realise how crucial a topic it is if we’re to solve net zero: The biggest problem is boilers, most of which are gas powered.

It’s a very difficult subject, because there are no easy answers.

- Retrofit of the “average” home to be low carbon is estimated to cost £22k – way beyond what most people can afford

- Alternative sources of home heating are disruptive as well as expensive (in fact the disruption is often more off-putting than the cost)

- Add to this the fact that the market for alternatives is not mature – readily available. For example ground source heat pumps are expensive and need space (and only work well if your home is well insulated), and we are only installing 36k a year nationally at present. We would need a new boiler to be installed every minute between now and 2050 to replace all UK boilers. Heat pumps are not the solution for the majority of situations.

- Insulation of roof space is relatively easy, but putting it on the walls of most houses is very difficult to retrofit.


Retrofit of existing homes; ideas for conserving heat (insulation) and clean sources of heat

Insulation; reducing demand for heat, and therefore reducing the demand for clean energy that we are going to have to produce and can’t get to net zero without.

- Councils should prioritise appropriate types of homes to get the best results. Housing built between 1970-90 are typically the easiest (cheapest) to retrofit, so at least for their own housing stock, this is where they should start. Pre-1919 houses are the hardest, so do these last.

Cleaner sources of heat

Whilst attitudes towards climate change have shifted massively over the past decade, behaviours have not changed to the same extent. We need to make it more attractive for people to make changes;

- In time councils will probably need to support the move to hydrogen piped into homes, although we’re not there yet, and noting;

· ‘Green’ hydrogen from renewables is very energy intensive, and therefore very expensive

· ‘Blue’ hydrogen from natural gas is still using fossil fuels and therefore not a silver bullet.

· Arguably hydrogen should only be used in areas of the electricity grid that are hardest to decarbonise in other ways.

- One thing councils can do is provide training in new technologies – this might include ground and air-source heat pumps etc that will be part of the mix. Local colleges need to provide appropriate courses to provide a new generation of skilled trades. This addresses other generational challenges associated with ageing plumbers and skilled workforce.

New Housing;

- Councils do have huge opportunities. I met a council leader from Wiltshire last week who has worked the numbers on the council homes he is building – making them low carbon adds just 4% to the cost.

- We need to ensure that ALL new builds are low or zero carbon in use. To do this we need house builders on board. Councils can help do this!

- It is shocking that a high proportion of the 1m homes built since 2015 will all need retrofitting in 15 years from now. We’ve got to stop this!

A few other ideas on low carbon housing, aside from heating and insulation;

- Materials; we engineers like to assess how much carbon goes into a building in terms of materials – in ‘embodied’ carbon. This is the carbon used to build it, as opposed to the carbon used during its lifetime. The carbon used during its life usually dwarfs the embodied carbon, but we can still do something about materials. Cement and concrete, for example, have a huge contribution globally to CO2 production, so we can’t ignore them

· Councils could state a preference for timber frames

· Councils could give planning more readily to schemes using alternatives

· You could add to your Local Plan


- We could do much better generally by making the local planning process fit for purpose. I believe that proper local involvement will favour schemes that enhance the local environment. Medium density is the future in areas like this. Mixed neighbourhoods for live and work mean less travel on a daily basis as well.

· Councils can influence outcomes by mandating utilities and services (including GPs and schools) and infrastructure to be built first. Not as an add-on

· A new initiative worth investigating is the ‘street votes’ idea, where neighbours get to vote on whether a development enhances the local area.

· Historically there has been too much focus on numbers of homes built, often provided in bulk by big developers. We need a focus on quality not volume -getting rid of the ‘output’ mentality, because it produces enormous pressure to build the wrong homes in unsuitable locations. It involves being proactive as a community in thinking through in advance, deciding and communicating what kind of developments will be acceptable. At the same time we will rebuild trust in the planning system.

· Don’t crowd out smaller developers.

· District heating is a good alternative for medium to larger schemes – it is much more responsive with new technologies, and needs to get rid of its soviet image!

COP26

I couldn’t finish without a few words on COP26, starting in Glasgow at the end of the month. There has been lots of commentary in the press, either moaning that it won’t go far enough or worrying about unfulfilled promises.

I see it as an opportunity not to solve climate change, but to re-enthuse us all – with

- A range of new ideas

- Greater knowledge around consumption

- Open debate and learning about the challenges

We can all learn something from Glasgow.

Global agreements, if and when they are signed, have a part to play in all this. However, I would argue that we, at a local level, have an equally important and powerful role.

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