Achieving Zero

Brenda Boardman is at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. I have always found that she has interesting things to say about climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in buildings. She has now written a report “Achieving Zero” which you can read in full at or in summary at which sets out some findings and ideas about reducing greenhouse egas emissions from buildings. This is a difficult problem in the United Kingdom where there are more than 26 million buildings the vast majority of which were built to designs and specifications when green house gas emissions and fuel costs were not a concern.

Dr Boardman rightly expects that for some time (she puts the date at 2025 and I am not sure if I agree with that date specifically) gas will remain the main heating fuel for buildings. After that she expects gas to be produced by anaerobic digestion, which is simply burns most of the gas that would otherwise leak into the atmosphere or be locked into the soil. It is possible to alter and adapt buildings that presently exist to that they are brought up to very low energy homes by insulation and similar measures so that we will eventually find that we do not need any space heating, just water heating.

This seems to be the foundation of what she rightly wants to achieve – “Zero”. There has been a great deal of useful work in compiling the matters that she thinks need to be addressed to achieve zero, and I commend it very highly.

I am not sure about whether she is right in her founding premise that we can adapt all the buildings to, say, passivhaus standard, because I fear that although we can make every building wind tight and highly insulated there may well be health consequences to the occupants of such buildings. I am unhappy with the build up of carbon dioxide in homes without adequate ventilation and not sure that highly insulating a home and then mechanically ventilating it is a solution that we have been able to find as yet, in a way that is sustainable and in a way that we can avoid the health and greenhouse gas consequences of doing this.

This is more of a consummation devoutly to be wished, rather than technology that you can put into 26 million buildings which you have to be absolutely sure that there are no ill effects, no undesired consequences and no adverse life cycle and life style effects. A great deal more work has to be done on this, from a technical and engineering point of view, as well as from a medical viewpoint.

I nevertheless think that there is a great deal of sense in the concept and the need to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions created within buildings.

The other interesting points about the report are the ideas that Dr Boardman proposes as a means of achieving two things which inevitably have a tension between them. The first is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the second is to reduce fuel poverty. You can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to an extent by pricing policies and also reduce fuel poverty by the same. Dr Boardman’s proposals do not, in my view, deal with the importance of fuel pricing. Instead she concentrates on nine suggested polices. I now take the liberty of quoting from her executive summary:-

1. complete coverage of the building stock with energy performance certificates and address specific databases at a basic level by 2013, for fuel poverty eradication. This is the pre-requisite for all other policies;

2. extension of display energy certificates to every business property and the publication of league tables to encourage action and improvements;

3. high minimum standards in the Building Regulations for new buildings, covering all energy use as soon as possible;

4. Building Regulations for existing properties to require consequential improvements, so that major changes to the building do not increase its overall energy consumption;

5. Building Control Officers to have a role as mentor for individual properties, to ensure they are on a low-energy trajectory that is understood by the owner;

6. financial and fiscal incentives to encourage both take-up of the most energy efficient products and buildings and improvement of the least efficient;

7. education to alert consumers to the importance of energy efficiency and the extent to which it varies between products, properties and lifestyles;

8. computer-based networks and directories to facilitate information exchange on innovative products and services between producers, purchasers and communities;

9. the immediate development of a Low Carbon Zone in each local authority to take action on the worst housing, occupied by the poorest people

These are, of course broad ideas and rightly so, but I am concerned that if we put them all into practice the purpose and intent of the ideas would lost in the inevitable bureaucracy that government creates which makes simple ideas very expensive, cumbersome and self defeating when it come to putting them into law or regulations. I find the ideas, which centre on assumptions about gas and electricity supplies, useful but if you take away the assumptions I am not sure whether they will work in what may the real world.

My preference, in place of Dr Boardman’s ideas, are measures founded upon the four principles of energy use, which I set out in “the Energy Age”, namely, benign energy first, conserve energy, the polluter must pay and there should be no unnecessary use of energy. In other words, the problem is the use of energy, and that is the problem to be addressed.

My own policies would be different from those of Dr Boardman:-

1. Invert the price pyramid of energy cost; as a building uses more units so its unit cost should increase.

2. Make compulsory home insulation. Forget persuasion, make proper insulations standards the law that has to be obeyed.

3. Make compulsory some form of genuine in home usable low or zero carbon energy production within the cartilage. It is more important to address the problem locally rather than with big schemes which suffer from intermittency.

4. Recognise that there is a tension between fuel poverty, which is solved by having cheap fuel and renewable energy, which, the way the dice are loaded, is more expensive to produce than burning fossil fuel. Address it by a levy on fossil fuel that takes account of the full life cycle effects of getting it and burning it – such as the air quality effect and cost on the health service.

I think the adoption of these ideas, especially pricing, will create a need to reduce energy and instead of renewables competing against the lowest unit price of fossil fuel energy, they would compete against the highest unit price.

That is my solution towards achieving zero.

2 Responses

  1. Has anybody noticed UK weather being generally warmer than 30 years ago?

    I haven’t!

    However, if ‘manmade’ global warming is real then the need for heating/insulation will naturally diminish by 2025

    So why spend a fortune insulating buildings.


    • Because there will be a lot of wasted money and a lot of unnecessary emissions and particulates if you don’t!

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