UK faces ‘colossal’ task to modify homes under green plans, MPs warn

The UK government’s net zero emissions goal would be impossible to achieve unless urgent action was taken to improve the energy efficiency of homes, a “colossal” challenge at a cost that it has “significantly underestimated”, MPs have warned

The environmental audit committee said the government was “failing to grasp” the extent of the work that must be done to eliminate pollution from the use of energy in UK homes, which accounts for about 20 per cent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

The housing sector “is at risk of letting the rest of the economy down on decarbonisation,” the EAC said in a report. “The task is colossal,” and progress must be made this decade to jump-start the transition.

Although the UK has made headway towards its legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, much of the work still to be done involves the more difficult to decarbonise sectors such as transport and housing.

When it comes to homes, not only must the sources of energy and heating be switched to clean fuels, but poorly insulated buildings must be upgraded — which would mean less wasted energy and lower bills for consumers. 

The latest committee warning comes soon after a group of MPs said the government had “no co-ordinated plan” to achieve its net zero goal, in a public rebuke ahead of the UK-hosted UN climate summit in November. 

The government has estimated that its ambition to make about 19m of the UK’s 29m homes more energy efficient by 2035 will cost anywhere between £35bn-£65bn.

But the EAC said the figure did not include the roughly 8m properties with solid walls rather than cavity walls, which are more expensive to insulate. It also did not take into account the cost of installing low-carbon heating such as heat pumps.

Since upgrades can average £18,000 per home, even before the addition of a heat pump, retrofitting the 19m homes “could be far more costly,” the EAC said. It recommended ministers review the projections and outline the proportion the government should expect to fund.

The report also criticised the botched rollout of the green homes grant, a flagship scheme to upgrade domestic properties in England that has been beset by administrative problems and slow to deliver funds to applicants. 

The programme, designed to run for a year, should be “urgently overhauled and extended to a multiannual scheme,” it said. Only £4.1bn in funding had been announced for energy efficiency measures out of the £9.2bn pledged as part of the government’s 2019 manifesto.

Plumbers installing a new boiler in home
© Paul Glendell/Alamy

It also highlighted a chronic shortage of skills to modify homes, and the need to encourage businesses to invest in workforces and building materials.

There were not enough retrofit installers “in the whole of the UK to be able to deliver the net zero targets for one very large local authority”, according to evidence from the Energy Efficiency Association, which provides training and certification services.

The EAC said the government must urgently publish its heat and buildings strategy and “set out an enduring plan for at least the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill”. It also recommended that the value added tax payable on the labour element of retrofits and on energy saving materials be cut to 5 per cent.

Ministers should also work with the financial sector to develop products such as green mortgages and low interest loans to help people make their homes more energy efficient, the committee said. 

Jess Ralston, analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a non-profit activist group, said the government was “talking a good game on net zero” but that had not translated into action. “The benefits of getting this right are crystal clear; hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs, lower bills, less carbon and more comfortable homes,” she said.

The government defended its record in response. “We ​are committed to going further and faster, and are investing £9bn in improving the energy efficiency of our buildings, while creating hundreds of thousands of skilled green jobs.”

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