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Zero Carbon by 2050: pipe dream or possibility?

Zero Carbon by 2050: pipe dream or possibility?

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Despite the political tumult this year, the UK Government has committed to pursuing a ‘Net Zero’ carbon economy by 2050. The May 2019 Committee on Climate Change report pointed the way to achieving this, across the following areas of the economy:

  • Power and hydrogen
  • Buildings
  • Industry
  • Transport
  • Agriculture
  • Waste
  • F-gas emissions, and
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) removal.

Buildings: gas out, heat pumps and hydrogen in

A key target area for the CCC recommendations is buildings, where the persistent challenge to be overcome is delivering low-carbon heating.

The electrification of energy - based on a massively decarbonised grid - has a central role in the CCC recommendations for the built environment. In addition, smart building control systems will be needed to help manage increased electricity demand and maximise renewable energy use.

The CCC recommendations for buildings also hinge on a massive roll-out of heat pumps, hybrid heat pumps and even hydrogen boilers. This would be supported by urban district heating, smart storage heating and high levels of energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency always needed...

Energy efficiency alone cannot deliver Net Zero. Even so, it’s very often the most cost-effective measure. However, any planned programme will clearly need to be far more successful than the failed ‘Green Deal’ retrofit scheme.

In the CCC report, hybrid (dual fuel) heat pumps would also be used to optimise the use of renewable energy in buildings. In all, the proposals would boost current low-carbon heating from only 4.5 per cent of buildings to a game-changing 90 per cent by 2050.

The total cost of installing the measures above, along with decarbonising the grid, could ramp up to tens of billions of pounds annually, though the CCC suggests that cost reductions would accompany deployment at scale, as currently seen for example by offshore wind.

Government policy and investment

To achieve UK-wide scale, the Government will need a policy framework for building decarbonisation that includes decarbonised heat, as soon as 2020. It will also need to deliver on a ‘Future Homes’ standard (ensuring new build has low-carbon heating and excellent energy efficiency by 2025, with ambitious standards for new non-residential buildings).

The UK is also well short of the infrastructure, supply and installation capacity required to introduce low-carbon heating at scale. For example, we need to move from 20,000 heat pump installations annually to around a million a year, overcoming poor customer awareness and low market development on the way.

Interestingly, the contribution of BIM, whole-life building performance and even the circular economy was not included in the otherwise comprehensive CCC report, but these processes and approaches could also help to unlock the type of carbon reductions needed in the years ahead.

Going forward, the quality of contractors, products, design and systems will greatly influence success, measured in costs, sustained carbon savings, and other benefits. If the work is not done properly and in a coordinated way, there is a real risk of ‘sub-optimal installation at scale’. All this means that ECA will be lobbying continually for quality work, delivered by quality contractors.

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