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Column: Britain’s old housing stock emerges as key emissions problem: Kemp

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Flames come out of a domestic gas ring of an oven in Durham, Britain, September 23, 2021. REUTERS/Lee Smith

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LONDON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Britain’s old and badly insulated housing stock is emerging as a major problem for government efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Britain has made rapid headway cutting emissions from power generation over the last decade, but progress reducing emissions from homes has been very much slower.

Stubbornly high emissions from houses and apartments are the most intractable obstacle to achieving the government’s stated target of reducing emissions to net zero by 2050.

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Britain’s homes accounted for 66 million tonnes of direct emissions in 2019 as a result of burning gas, oil, coal and other fuels to provide heating and hot water.

They also accounted for another 17 million tonnes of indirect emissions as their share of electricity consumption to provide heating, hot water, lighting and power.

Direct and indirect emissions together accounted for 16% of the country’s total emissions, according to the Climate Change Committee, the government’s official advisory body (“Sixth carbon budget”, 2020).

The country’s total emissions declined by 142 million tonnes per year between 2009 and 2019, a compound annual reduction of around 2.7%.

But decarbonisation of electricity accounted for 93 million tonnes of the reduction, with emissions falling at an average rate of 9% per year.

Emissions from residential fuel combustion fell by only 8 million tonnes, an average compound rate of just 1.2% per year (chartbook: https://tmsnrt.rs/3oie8Hr).

Direct emissions from households overtook the power sector for the first time in 2018, underscoring the fact there is no way to reach net zero without faster decarbonisation of domestic heating and hot water systems.

But Britain’s elected policymakers remain reluctant to tackle the issue of residential emissions because it is likely to be very expensive to retrofit existing homes with new insulation and heating systems.

Existing heating and hot water systems are often perceived as having superior user properties to the low-emission electrified systems with which the government wants to replace them.

As a result, there is significant opposition from the tabloid media and sections of the home-owning public to efforts to mandate greater insulation and replace residential combustion systems with electrified ones.

OLD AND BADLY INSULATED

In Britain, the majority of household energy consumption is used for space heating (63%) and hot water (17%), with much smaller amounts used for cooking (3%), lighting (3%) and appliances (13%).

The overwhelming majority of existing homes rely on gas for central heating and hot water (83%) with far fewer relying on oil (6%) and the rest using some form of electric heating.

Gas is the most common heating fuel in every region of the country except Northern Ireland, which was bypassed by the heating revolution that followed the development of North Sea gas in the 1960s and 1970s.

There are almost 24 million gas-fired central heating systems in use, with an average lifespan of 15 years, according to the Building Research Establishment Trust (BRE) (“Housing stock of the United Kingdom”, 2020).

The energy efficiency of the country’s housing stock is low, with many dwellings old and of relatively poor construction quality, which makes them expensive to heat.

“The UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe, and most likely in the world,” according to the BRE. “This is largely due to the legacy of dwellings built during the industrial revolution, which still form the backbone of our urban areas today.”

“While still widely valued, these homes present challenges in making them healthy, safe and suitable for the future.”

More than half the country’s homes were built before 1965, more than a third were built before 1945, and a fifth were built before 1919.

Britain also has an unusually high proportion of poor-quality homes suffering one or more serious hazards, most commonly dangerous stairs or poor heating.

Britain’s proportion of poor housing (11%) is close to the EU average (12%), and similar to Belgium (11%) and France (12%), but much higher than other countries in northern and western Europe.

Older homes are more likely to be classed as poor quality, with severe problems in pre-1919 homes (26%) nine times more common than in the most modern homes built since 1980 (3%).

The housing stock is changing very slowly over time. Fewer than 200,000 new homes were added on average each year between 1991 and 2017. If building continues at this rate, only 6 million more will be added by 2050.

In consequence, the housing stock in 2050 is likely to be substantially similar to today. “Substantial replacement by new build is not an option,” according to the BRE.

“UK homes are not fit for the future,” and will require huge investment if the government is to reach its climate targets, the Climate Change Committee concluded (“UK housing: fit for the future?” 2019).

The only way to reduce residential heating demand and emissions will be to retrofit insulation and electric heating systems into millions of existing homes, somehow overcoming media and public resistance.

Related columns:

- IEA’s roadmap shows difficult journey to net zero (Reuters, July 30) read more

- Global CO2 emissions far off net-zero trajectory (Reuters, April 9) read more

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Editing by Mark Potter

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