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The scrapping of the zero carbon homes undermines trust in government’s commitment to energy efficiency

The government’s decision to scrap the zero carbon homes target plus the equivalent for non-domestic houses is a major setback for achieving a low carbon UK and will undermine the credibility of the policy mix on building energy efficiency and beyond. The zero carbon homes target was announced in 2006 and, as the name suggests, was an obligation for any new home to be built from 2016 to be ‘zero carbon’. This includes improvements to be building fabric compared to standard new buildings and measures such as on-site renewable energy generation. Since this is difficult to achieve, the government then introduced so-called ‘allowable solutions’ which are measures which can be implemented off-site to reduce emissions to complement the on-site carbon savings. The recent announcement on the details of the allowable solutions has already been criticised as being ‘watered down’ compared to the original target.

The policy is also designed to implement the requirements of the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and in 2008 government and industry jointly set up a non-profit organisation called the Zero Carbon Hub  to work together towards realising zero carbon buildings. According to Andrew Warren, Honorary President of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, the Zero Carbon Hub has proved to be the acknowledged entity to which everyone turns companies and Ministers alike to consider how best to progress towards ensuring that only the most energy- and carbon-efficient new buildings are constructed (in the October 2014 issue of Energy in Buildings and Industry). While 2016 now looming close, the Conservative government decided to abandon the target which has been widely criticised by house builders, planners and green groups (see UK scraps zero carbon homes target).

This kind of regulatory approach of stimulating the development and roll-out of new technologies is seen as very effective in the literature: a challenging target is announced a long time in advance (10 years in this case), and then industry and other stakeholders have clarity about the ambitions and can prepare for what the government is trying to achieve. This was the theory followed with the zero carbon homes target and could have worked. However, this approach significantly depends on the credibility of the government in order to trigger investments, etc.

While of course the zero carbon homes target is only one policy among a diverse policy mix to achieve energy efficiency improvements in new and existing buildings, the scrapping of the important commitment will have repercussions beyond its immediate reach. The most important issue will be one of trust in government. With this decision, the government turned its back to a target which was announced 9 years ago and for which industry and other stakeholders have prepared since. As mentioned above, for this type of policy approach to work, trust in government holding its course is vital as otherwise industry and other players will not make the required investments and plans to implement the target, which then means it cannot be achieved in the short term if push comes to shove. The government’s U-turn now says it loud and clear that (at least building) energy efficiency is not going to be a priority and that the commitment to build more new homes cheaply takes precedence. This will mean higher future energy bills for consumers and less investment in the low carbon economy and therefore is a major missed opportunity.