Social housing: time to declare a climate emergency?

Jade Lewis, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Energy Association, examines the key role social housing providers must play in tackling carbon emissions and calls for the sector to declare a climate emergency and lead the way

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The Rise in Climate Declarations

The legislation of the UK’s net zero carbon target has given rise to declarations of a climate emergency, with 74% of local authorities having now set their own carbon targets. Typically, this means that resources have been allocated to raise awareness of the climate crisis and to reduce carbon emissions to net zero sometime between 2030 and 2050.

Outside of local authorities, businesses and institutions like universities have also decided to act to help mitigate the impacts of climate change by taking responsibility for their own carbon footprint.

It is now time for the social housing sector to build on its previous successes and do the same.

Social Housing to Lead the Way to Net Zero 

The social housing sector accounts for 17% of all homes in the UK and has an important role to play in delivering the UK’s net zero carbon target by 2050.

It is important to note that while we have seen great progress on decarbonisation since 1990, this has largely been driven by the power sector, and carbon emissions in buildings have actually increased in recent years. However, following support from earlier government policy, social housing currently boasts the highest Energy Performance standards within the housing sector.

Social housing providers could now build on this success by declaring a climate emergency, backed up by an ambitious target to reduce carbon emissions. This declaration should be followed by adequate policies, standards and funding to deliver results, with checks in place to ensure effective delivery.

Next steps for Social Housing

The social housing sector must take a step change to support the UK’s net zero target.

The Climate Change Committee has rightly advised that buildings must be addressed for the UK to meet its net zero carbon target by 2050, with the decarbonisation of heat, responsible for 37% of emissions, being highlighted as a significant challenge. A decision has already been taken by the Government to phase out the installation of fossil fuel heating systems and require new homes to be future-proofed with low carbon heating from 2025.

While all housing sectors will need to adapt to the net zero transition, social landlords have a responsibility to not just mitigate climate change by reducing emissions from their properties but to also ensure that new and existing homes are adapted for the effects of a warming planet, such as flooding and overheating.

A combination of steps will need to be taken to meet this challenge. More homes will need to be built to higher levels of energy efficiency, existing homes will need to be retrofitted to higher energy performance levels, and fossil fuels will need to be phased out and replaced with low carbon heating solutions.

It is also important that the focus is not solely on carbon. A holistic approach must be taken to building design, considering wider health and wellbeing aspects such as safety, air quality and thermal comfort. Focusing on carbon alone has led to unintended consequences in the past.

Critical Time for Action
In light of the recent government decision to enshrine the world’s most ambitious climate change targets in law, this is no doubt a critical time for social housing providers to take action. All areas of the economy will need to come together to address the challenge by setting out ambitions that inspire action and deliver results. The social housing sector has already made good progress and could set an example to be followed in the years ahead.

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