Zero-Carbon Homes – recent UK Government announcements

29 July 2015

Article by Graham Winter, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Picture of a house

Image from Cardiff University (Solcer)

Zero-Carbon Homes are dwellings that have very high energy efficiency performance and have no net carbon emissions from energy use.  This can be achieved either through reducing energy use, using renewable energy, or a combination of the two.  The move towards building homes that are zero or near‑zero carbon will help to meet emissions reduction targets that are necessary to reduce the risks of climate change. The Committee on Climate Change’s 2015 annual carbon progress report to Parliament, published on 30 June 2015 called on the UK Government to implement the zero-carbon homes standard without further weakening it.

The EU Energy Performance in Buildings Directive 2010 requires all new buildings to be built to a ‘nearly zero energy’ standard by 2021.  Member States are also required “draw up national plans for increasing the number of nearly zero‑energy buildings”. A nearly zero-energy building is defined in the Directive as “a building that has a very high energy performance. The nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered to a very significant extent by energy from renewable sources, including energy from renewable sources produced on-site or nearby”.

UK Government’s Productivity Plan

Two announcements by the new UK Government in the Productivity Plan published on 10 July 2015 were described as “the death knell for zero‑carbon homes.”  Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC), acknowledged the need for more homes to be built but stated this did not justify building them with a legacy of high energy bills.  She said “It is short-sighted, unnecessary, retrograde and damaging to the house building industry which has invested heavily in delivering energy efficient homes.”

However both the Home Builders Federation (HBF) and the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) welcomed the announcements.  The HBF was quoted in the media as saying “the allowable solutions approach that had been previously favoured would have imposed significant additional costs with no obvious enhancement in the energy efficiency of our housing stock.”  The FMB said the UK Government was “right to remove the unnecessary zero carbon standards which threatened to perpetuate the housing crisis” and called on a greater push on retrofitting existing housing.”

The two announcements in the Productivity Plan were that the ‘allowable solutions’ concept, which enabled developers to offset greenhouse gas savings off-site, where it was not cost effective to do so on-site, has now been dropped.  Also the proposed move to a further improvement on the Building Regulation standards in 2016 (that would be half-way to achieving Zero Carbon Homes) is also not going ahead at the moment.  The UK Government has however said it will keep energy efficiency standards under review.

Because responsibility for making the Building Regulations for Wales is devolved to the Welsh Ministers, these two UK Government announcements only apply in England.

Previous UK Government policy

The UK Labour Government originally announced in 2007 an intention to achieve zero-carbon homes by 2016.  The UK Coalition Government reaffirmed this commitment in 2010.

In England and Wales the main means of achieving the move towards nearly zero‑energy new housing is through Part L of the Building Regulations which covers the conservation of fuel and power.  The Welsh Ministers have had devolved responsibility for making the Building Regulations for Wales since the beginning of 2012.

Building Regulations – England

In England a 6% improvement on the energy efficiency of new dwellings compared to the 2010 Building Regulations standards (25% on 2006 standards) was introduced in 2013.  In 2014 the UK Coalition Government proposed a 26% improvement on the 2010 Building Regulations standards in England from 2016 – although this would still only represent the half‑way point to Zero Carbon Homes.  It also announced at that time that small sites (10 or less dwellings) would be exempt from this requirement. Also from 2016 Zero Carbon Homes could be achieved by making up the remainder through ‘allowable solutions’ such as offsite renewable schemes, where it was not cost effective to do so on-site.

The recent Productivity Plan announced that both the ‘allowable solutions’ idea and the proposed move in 2016 to Building Regulations changes that would be half-way to Zero Carbon Homes is also not going ahead in England at the moment.

Building Regulations – Wales

In Wales changes to Part L of the Building Regulations came into force on 31 July 2014. These changes mean that new dwellings will be 8% more energy efficient when compared to the Building Regulations 2010 standards. The Welsh Government had previously consulted in 2012 on a 40% or 25% reduction on 2010 levels, stating that 40% was its preferred option.

The power to make Building Regulations to cover off-site carbon abatement measures (allowable solutions) was given to the Welsh Ministers by the Infrastructure Act 2015.  The Minister issued a statement at the time saying that the Welsh Government would consult on such measures in Wales before exercising the new powers.  It is not yet known whether the Welsh Government will decide to use these powers given the decision to abandon off-site abatement measures in England.

The Welsh Government has also said it will review Part L again in 2016. The review is intended to be the next step in a progression towards the EU target of nearly zero energy buildings.