Willing the Ends, Willing the Means

The ‘Sun Ship’ (Das Sonnenschiff) is a small community in the Vauban district of Freiburg. Built in 2004, it is one of the earliest examples of ‘energy-plus’ housing; developments that generate more electricity than the community itself consumes.

Powered entirely by solar energy (and storage), and designed to high standards of natural heating and cooling, Vauban shows how housing can be re-thought in ways more compatible with a climate-challenged world. Seventeen years later, Britain’s housing developers still see this as a bridge too far.

Successive British governments gave in to the lobbying of major housing developers, all claiming that such standards were too demanding, too expensive, too much of a ‘niche interest’ for the UK construction sector. This is how, over the last 5 years, Britain has ended up with over 500,000 new homes, built to standards that even the Climate Change Committee (CCC) described as ‘unfit’ for the climate conditions ahead of us. The folly lives on. Britain leads the world in climate pledges but is a laggard on delivery.

Britain is not alone. The International section of the Financial Times has just run a long piece headed “Heatwaves raise doubts on whether humanity is ready for warmer planet”. It followed the extreme heat, drought and lightning fires that have been creating mayhem down the West coast of Canada and the USA. It concluded (rationally) that the built environment will have to adapt if this is what the ‘new normal’ will look like. And it will.

The urgent need is for policies to change, radically and rapidly. Nothing highlighted this need for radical, political leadership more than the Greenpeace revelations that followed.

“Too ambitious, too demanding”

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Greenpeace discovered that, last year, Taylor Wimpey, Britain’s third largest house builder (by volume), had lobbied government, arguing that the 2025 target (a 75%-80% reduction in carbon emissions from new build homes) was “too ambitious” and that proposed improvements in energy efficiency standards were “too demanding”. No doubt they have a different planet to retreat to.

Other developers were more reticent, but behind the scenes Britain is facing an explosion of development applications and new construction work. All are eager to shovel in as much cement and cheap fittings as possible, before higher standards of building regulations kick in. Developers rely on the fact that local authorities currently lack the planning powers needed to mandate higher environmental standards.

This is no marginal issue. Buildings are Britain’s second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, fractionally behind transport. If you want to make big carbon savings, you have to make big changes in how buildings work … and you have to do it now.

Britain’s most progressive local authorities – mostly those that have already passed Climate Emergency resolutions – all know that the cost of retrofitting buildings (the ones being constructed now) will fall on the shoulders of taxpayers and ratepayers.

Such retrofitting will probably have to start within the next 5 years. The one thing you can bank on is that, when this happens, you won’t see the developers for dust. The proceeds will have been pocketed, the profits parked offshore and the problems will be someone else’s.

Serious leadership: the burning issue

The run up to this year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow cries out for serious political leadership. At its core is one clear challenge: we have to stop burning fossil fuels. A welter of simple (but profound) policy changes would follow.

In Denmark, no planning application can even be considered for a development connected to the gas grid. Britain could do the same. Danish construction companies screamed ‘impossible!’ when the proposal was made, but quickly found alternatives when they thought the contracts would go to German companies. It would be the same in Britain. Even Taylor Wimpey would catch on.

Then, the Chancellor could end the absurd bias in energy taxation. Taxes on electricity are 10 times higher than on gas; 23% of UK electricity bills being made up of policy taxes, but only a 2% levy on gas. Simply reversing these levies would send out a massive market signal.

Pump Fiction

Having done that, the Chancellor should earmark the entirety of such levies to plug another policy gap in the mythology of government claims; namely that Britain will be installing 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028.

Currently, Britain would be lucky to do more than 12,500 per year, one fiftieth of the 2028 target. There are no fiscal mechanisms to drive down (currently high) heat pump installation costs and no regulatory framework that shifts construction goalposts in favour of zero-carbon energy.

Politically, the really smart move would be to heavily subsidise the conversion of both urban social housing and of villages never even connected to the gas grid. Such a move would link urban and rural interests in a ‘planet first’ transformative heating programme.

It doesn’t stop with heating. While the news from Nissan and Vauxhall about new the production of new EV cars and vans is an important step in the shift away from fossil fuelled transport, this hardly counts as a National Plan.

The rapid replacement of petrol and diesel vehicles will only happen when a serious scrappage scheme comes in too, and when towns and cities can mandate Clean Air zones that exclude polluting vehicles. A really smart politics would then ramp up conversion industries; turning existing vehicles into EVs and creating recharging networks connected to homes, workplaces, towns and whole cities.

This would shift the emphasis from current mass production and consumption modalities to the more circular economics that rapid carbon reductions will depend upon. Follow the logic through and you quickly encounter an economics bursting at the seams with new jobs and tomorrow’s skills.

Living Differently; willing the means

Opposition Parties could pave the way for such a ‘rapid transition’ politics by offering the Chancellor an open door invitation to deliver a pre-COP26 Climate Budget. All the fiscal changes I’ve touched on (and more) could be wrapped in its embrace. Britain’s towns and cities could then be given the powers (and duties) to live within rapidly reducing carbon budgets.

Cities could follow the example of Lille, committing to develop new food cooperatives to supply 50% of its food needs from within its own region.

Localities of all sizes could develop a UK version of Danish or German radically decentralised energy systems; all with duties to deliver the necessary 10% annual reduction in carbon emissions.

The UK could follow Norway in mandating 90%+ recycling of plastic containers, or New Zealand’s commitment to ban single use plastics by the mid-2020’s.

Britain could also invite its towns and cities follow the example of Paris, where the Mayor is removing half of its 140,000 on-street parking spaces, handing the corridors of space over to pedestrians, cyclists, nature and (clean) public transport. Shifting the bulk of the

£27bn roads programme to rail and public transport subsidies would accelerate this process.

All these options lie within the Chancellor’s grasp; all are within reach of a government committed to delivering climate stability; all within the powers of a parliament that takes transformative climate obligations seriously.

The trouble is that now, more than ever, government must will the means, not just whistle at the ends. And we don’t have much time.

It isn’t just the West Coast of America that is burning up. In the first half of last year, a Siberian heatwave took temperatures 5C above all previous records. Despite erratic downpours in Britain, this has been Europe’s hottest June on record. Even Britain’s Met Office now warn that

“changes in average climate are leading to rapid escalation not just of extreme temperatures, but of extraordinarily extreme temperatures.”

In the face of this prospect, Boris Johnson merely retreats from policy into platitudes. One look at his government’s Covid policies tells you what will happen over climate.

All pretence at Covid policy leadership is being abandoned behind a call for ‘responsible individualism’. Johnson is washing his hands of all responsibility for the chaos that will follow. The same fate awaits climate policy. As we teeter from one crisis to another, blame will be placed at the feet of ‘feckless individuals’, not hopeless leadership. This is how Boris works; not so much Pontius Pilot, more no pilot at all.

The world urgently needs so much more. In the face of today’s roller-coaster climate events, the call to radically change the entirety of our economic priorities sounds positively modest.

Alan Simpson July 9th, 2021


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