Tony Cain: Achieving zero carbon in social housing - it’s haste we need, not speed

With next week’s Scottish Housing Day set to explore the challenges for the social housing sector to meet net zero carbon emissions, ALACHO policy manager Tony Cain argues that evidence-based solutions are more important than quick ones.

The classical version is Festina Lente, make haste slowly, more usually translated as “more haste, less speed”. I don’t think there is a better way of summarising the message of this blog.

The social housing sector has an important role to play in delivering low carbon and highly energy efficient homes. That role is most important to tenants who should be the principal beneficiaries of the investment. But there are risks that the sector needs to be aware of and there are demands that it needs to be prepared to resist in the interests of tenants.

We need to move quickly and get it right, but we shouldn’t ignore the risks and rush at it.

To begin at the beginning, we are in a climate emergency and carbon emissions from our homes need to be reduced. To put a few numbers on that the Scottish Government’s heat in buildings strategy tells us that the residential sector produces around 16% of greenhouse gases in Scotland. That’s less than transport, agriculture, business, or energy supply1 but it is significant and should be seen as an area for urgent action.

But when it comes to greenhouse gases not all homes are equal. At best the social rented sector can be no more than 24% of all residential emissions but, given that homes in the social sector are smaller, better insulated and often under heated it is very likely that the sector’s contribution is significantly smaller.

Using the environmental impact ratings from EPCs, a social rented home with a rating of band C (the average for the sector) will contribute around 1.5 tonnes of carbon a year compared with an average for all residential properties (as quoted on the current EPC) of 6 tonnes a year. Using that as a guide this would suggest that total carbon emissions from the social rented sector are in the order of 10% of all residential emissions and around 1.6% of Scotland’s emissions as a whole.

The sector needs to decarbonise but getting it right is going to be more important than doing it quickly not least because if we get it wrong there is real risk that we will drive up fuel poverty by installing heating systems that don’t deliver affordable heat; damage the stock through poorly finished insulation and airtightness work; reduce internal air quality through ineffective ventilation and see rents continue to rise ahead of inflation because work has been poorly specified or finished and has to be paid for again.

To the extent that we have already had to deal with some of these problems with past improvement programmes we know that these risks are real.

There are other risks too, innovation risks, those arising from being first to use a particular technology before it is fully developed or tested in context, and those that arise from “market making”, leading in the use of a new and relatively expensive technology so that others later in the programme can benefit from lower prices and more reliable and better tested products.

It would simply be wrong to ask tenants in the social sector, who have already invested heavily in the improvement of their homes, to take on these risks for owners or private landlords.

The good news is that the sector is well sighted on these issues and, just as importantly, they are well reflected in the recommendations of the Zero Emissions Social Housing Taskforce (ZEST) report published this month.

This independent report developed by a group of experts from across the sector has made 8 recommendations all firmly based on experience and evidence that point the sector towards a measured approach that is focused on benefit to tenants. They include:

  • developing measures to assess the “just transition”, these could include ensuring rents remain affordable, that fuel poverty is reduced, and that internal air quality and property condition aren’t compromised but it also includes ensuring that other sectors that have a greater impact on climate invest and decarbonise at the pace demanded of them;
  • taking a “fabric first” approach, reducing the need for heating before changing the way we heat; this will reduce the risk from failed technologies as well as allowing time to test newer heating technologies like heat pumps;
  • developing the skills that the new approaches require, ensuring that work is done to the highest standard and that high quality jobs are created in the process; and
  • working with tenants and communities to develop a shared understanding and commitment to decarbonisation and the changes to the way we heat and run our homes that will be required.

There are already many examples of outstanding practice across the social housing sector. Some of these are highlighted in the ZEST report, ALACHO will work with others to showcase them as we prepare for Scottish Housing Day on 15 September.

You can find out more about Scottish Housing Day and find resources online. You can also sign up for a free online event on 15 September here.

1 Scottish Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2019, Scottish Government 2021

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