Facing the climate change challenge in housing

Sarah Scotcher reflects on how the social housing sector can meet its own pledge that all homes are at a near-zero-carbon standard by 2036

If anyone was in any doubt about the severity of the imminent climate challenge, I think the last few weeks and months will have woken them up. Nearly all of us have acknowledged there was a problem, of course, but the public awareness and political recognition has shifted up a gear recently to now accept there’s ‘A Very Big Problem’.


Whether it’s pleas from David Attenborough and the consequent focus on single use plastics, activism on the part of young people (most notably, Greta Thunberg) or media interest around Extinction Rebellion protests that have been responsible for this recent increase in attention, recent months have forced both the public and decision-makers to address the issues that scientists have been warning us about for years.


In October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave us 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5C. Even half a degree higher significantly increases the risk of drought, floods and extreme heat. This clearly set things in motion for politicians, resulting in Welsh Government declaring a climate emergency in April; the UK Parliament and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon quickly followed suit, announcing their own climate change action plans shortly after. Reflecting the growing focus on biodiversity and ‘greening’, the Republic of Ireland have also declared a climate and biodiversity emergency.


The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 legislated for statutory emission reduction targets, including at least an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. The Committee on Climate Change (the CCC), however, recommended in May that Wales needs to achieve a 95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.


So, aside from these announcements and recommendations, what is actually being done in Wales? In March, Welsh Government released their first Low Carbon Delivery Plan, outlining how Wales will reduce its emissions, and we are expecting a report on housing stock decarbonisation in July.


Our 2018 Housing Horizons vision set out the ambition of housing associations in Wales around low carbon homes, including for all new housing association homes to be built to near-zero-carbon standard by 2020, and all our homes to reach this standard by 2036. The subsequent Independent Review of Affordable Housing Supply in Wales made recommendations on modern methods of construction, near zero carbon standards and the decarbonisation of homes. Some housing associations inherited housing stock from local authorities in the large scale voluntary transfer of the 1990s, for which they receive a ‘dowry’, funding provided to support the delivery of the Welsh Housing Quality Standard. The Affordable Housing Review recommends that, in the future, housing associations will be required to demonstrate accelerated progress in decarbonisation in order to continue receiving this dowry.


The housing sector in Wales faces a significant challenge when it comes to tackling climate change. A fair proportion of our housing stock is also far from easy to treat. This is partly because, compared with the UK as a whole, Wales has higher proportions of solid-wall homes (29% against 27% for the UK) and properties off the gas grid (21% against 15% for the UK).  In addition, our stock is older than the UK as a whole; 32% of the Welsh housing stock were built before 1919, compared with around 20% of English stock.


Having said this, housing is also a sector over which Welsh Government has full control. We can therefore anticipate that we in the sector will be expected to pull our weight when it comes to decarbonisation.


Housing associations across Wales are now building an increasing number of homes with a clear focus on low carbon. We are now in the third year of the Welsh Government funded Innovative Housing Programme, which has seen many housing associations embark on new initiatives, signalling a clear shift towards developing homes with low carbon in mind.


There is also an increased focus on collaborations, such as with Swansea University’s SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre and the Swansea Bay City Deal’s Homes as Power Stations project. Several housing associations, including Newydd, Coastal, Wales & West and Pobl, are working with these projects to develop homes so energy efficient that they are energy positive or near energy positive, essentially creating a power station within each home. Both collaborations aim to create smarter, lower carbon, more energy efficient homes, in order to tackle the issue of climate change head on while also meeting the need for more housing in Wales.


With so much public and political attention on the catastrophic potential consequences of humankind’s actions to date, it’s clear that housing associations are poised to rise to the challenge and play their part. Community Housing Cymru is holding its first Low Carbon Conference on July 18th 2019. For details and to book on, there’s more detail here


Photo by Blake Wheeler on Unsplash

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Sarah Scotcher is Policy Officer at Community Housing Cymru

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