Monday, June 13, 2016

Climate Change and Energy Efficiency – The Challenge of Tackling Older Buildings

Whether you have your own political views or are sceptical about government policy and initiatives it is important to embrace them as we only have the possibility of making a difference, if we are prepared ‘to give it a go’, after all, we have to start somewhere

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Are you aware of the significant impact of climate change on our planet?  Are you aware of the major influence that those working in the built environment, could have in dealing with this very serious issue? Or, like many do you really care at all?  We are already experiencing the impact of climate change as a result of the way that we have used our planet to a point where many of these changes are now irreversible. The issue now is how we slow down the process and try to protect the environment for future generations. The Environment Agency website (Link), emphasises the human impact on our climate, and portray some very stark and worrying facts:

‘There is a scientific consensus that the recent observed rise in global temperature can only be explained by the rise in greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.

Since the industrial revolution, human activity, mostly the burning of fossil fuels, has resulted in the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is enhancing the greenhouse effect and pushing up global temperatures.

Average global temperatures have already risen approximately one degree Celsius since pre-industrial levels, and even if we could stop emitting all greenhouse gases tomorrow, they would continue to rise by at least a further 0.6 degrees. Limiting temperature rise to below two degrees is the internationally agreed target to avert dangerous climate change.

There are clear signs that our world is warming. We’ve had markedly higher global average temperatures over the last decade, ice sheets and glaciers are melting and average river water temperatures are increasing. Globally, the hottest ten years on record have all been since 1990, and February 2010 was warmest on record for southern hemisphere’

It is therefore clear that action is needed now and whether we like it or not, we must all play our part. Much of this action is actually imposed on us through legislation such as Building Regulations and other initiatives such Code for Sustainable Homes, BREEAM etc. which are primarily voluntary (although funding requirements may in effect make these mandatory). This is fine if we are dealing with new buildings, but how do we deal with the existing varied and largely energy inefficient building stock we have in the UK?  These are the types of buildings that waste a great deal of energy through older inefficient elements and therefore readily lose heat through the building fabric, requiring additional heating and therefore more energy to try to achieve acceptable internal temperatures.  If we make our buildings more thermally efficient, this heat energy is retained longer in the building, therefore reducing the amount of additional heating we need and subsequently reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.

According to BBC News (2006), ‘Transport consistently grabs the headlines on climate change emissions but buildings pour out about half of the UK's CO2 - 30% from homes, 20% from commercial buildings’.  The Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) completed an assessment of a variety of impacts of various sectors may need to prepare, which included the Built Environment: ‘The UK’s built environment includes: 27 million homes, commercial and industrial properties, hospitals, schools, other buildings and the wider urban environment. At the current replacement rate, around 70% of buildings that will be in use in the 2050's already exist. It is clear therefore that those working in the built environment have the opportunity of influencing the impact of climate change in all sectors including both new build and existing buildings. This has also been emphasised by the UK government’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% (from the 1990 baseline) by 2050 under the Climate Change Act 2008. In order to achieve this it is necessary to significantly reduce our reliance on depleting resources such as fossil fuels (which emit high quantities of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon) and consider the use of more energy efficient and low carbon ways of creating energy (renewable technologies), making our buildings more thermally efficient in addition to educating people to operate and use buildings more efficiently. This is fundamental to achieving a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and necessary if we are to stand any chance of meeting our targets.

The government have set a strategy with the objective of achieving the targets set within the Climate Change Act 2008 (Link). Whether you have your own political views or are sceptical about government policy and initiatives it is important to embrace these policies as we only have the possibility of making a difference, if we are prepared ‘to give it a go’, after all, we have to start somewhere.  It is ok to be sceptical, however until policies and initiatives are introduced and tested we have no way of knowing whether they will work or not. I along with many others raised issues with the now demised Green Deal, however I have also gone onto state that I think in principle Green Deal was a good idea undoubtedly needed some re-adjustment to make it more effective. The important thing here is that the UK government decided to tackle poor energy efficiency in existing buildings. However, trying to encourage people to incorporate energy efficient measures and renewable technologies into their buildings is always going to be difficult for a number of reasons.  

The Green Deal worked on the basis of a low interest loan which is added to fuel bills, for energy efficient enhancements which were recommended by a Green Deal Assessor. The ‘golden rule’ then assumed that the repayments on the loan would not exceed the savings made on the energy bills, therefore the bill payer/s should not notice any difference in the amount they were are paying each month. 

There is also constructional detailing issues in respect of retrofitting existing and occupied buildings to increase thermal efficiency and also issues in respect of introducing and installing renewable technologies. Once installation of enhancements has been completed it is also necessary to ‘educate’ occupiers to help them to understand how to use them.  It is pointless increasing thermal efficiency and installing new technologies into a building if the occupier continues to waste energy because they don’t understand how to use the system correctly.  Again, this emphasises the need for a holistic approach to dealing with energy efficiency in existing buildings rather than concentrating on the technologies alone.  This is a tough nut to crack with no easy solutions. It will be interesting to see what the government come up with next when trying to tackle energy efficiency in existing buildings.

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