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Urgent action required to tackle energy efficiency of housing stock

Dr Patrice Cairns, Policy Manager, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS)


Improving the energy efficiency of buildings must be made a priority by the Assembly

Improving the energy efficiency of buildings must be made a priority by the Assembly

Improving the energy efficiency of buildings must be made a priority by the Assembly

The new NI Executive has some very challenging issues to tackle. The low carbon transition of the built environment, which alone accounts for over a third of UK carbon emissions, is certainly not the least of them.

New Decade, New Approach promises not only a strategy to address the immediate and longer-term impacts of climate change, but also the introduction of legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

However, in the face of the UK's toughened up net zero 2050 target, Northern Ireland will be expected to up its ante considerably.

With the next COP26 being held in Glasgow later this year, the UK will be wanting to showcase its commitment to net zero.

Statistics from the Greenhouse Gas Inventory estimate that Northern Ireland accounted for 4.3% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, whilst accounting for 2.8% of the UK's population and 2.2% of UK's economic output.

Unsurprisingly, agriculture remains the largest carbon emitting sector, followed by transport, energy and residential buildings.

Emissions have fallen at a significantly slower rate than the UK as a whole, with the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) estimating that Northern Ireland's contribution to the fifth UK carbon budget requires at least a 35% reduction in emissions against 1990 levels by 2030.

The policy gap across the main carbon emitting sectors needs urgently addressed and existing policies will not be enough to deliver the level of reduction required.

While lessons and good practice can be taken from across the UK, Northern Ireland's unique context, particularly in energy, will require innovation and a strategic, joined-up approach.

Fuel poverty still remains a significant issue, with the latest estimate from the 2016 House Condition Survey approximating that 22% of households in Northern Ireland were affected. Climate and fuel poverty policies must be in synergy, with low-carbon heat in provision with an energy efficient building fabric to be both effective in cost savings and emissions reduction.

Given it is estimated that 70% of the UK's existing buildings will still be in use in 2050, enhancing the energy efficiency of existing housing stock through a range of retrofitting measures is critical.

Regulatory drivers in England and Wales set in place that from April 2018 it became unlawful for a landlord to grant a new tenancy of a property below the minimum Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating 'E', unless an exemption has been registered.

Come the April 1, 2020 this provision will be extended to be unlawful to continue to let a sub-standard property.

The Government's ambition is to upgrade private rented homes to EPC rating 'C' by 2030, extending to owner-occupied by 2035. It's a formidable task.

Yet Northern Ireland lacks any such regulation to incentivise energy efficiency upgrades in existing housing.

RICS has for a number of years urged the Government to use a fiscal lever to encourage consumers to invest in their property. We believe that motivations to enhance energy efficiency may be better realised through a financial mechanism focused on the wider home improvement and repair market. By considering a uniform reduction to 5% across the VAT for home improvement regime, the Government could provide a needed boost in the adoption of retrofitting measures being taken in tandem with home improvement upgrades across the UK.

As carbon emissions are attributable not only to the operational use of built assets, but also through their construction, retrofitting provides an opportunity to achieve significant embodied carbon savings through re-use rather than re-build.

Retrofitting Northern Ireland's existing housing stock is a critical milestone on the cost-effective path to decarbonisation.

The Executive must commit to sustained funding and a package of financial incentive mechanisms for retrofitting across both low income and 'able to pay' households, drive standards and regulation, and must support industry in delivering the robust pipeline of skills required to undertake this challenge. In such the Northern Ireland Executive should deliver energy efficiency improvements as a long-term infrastructure priority investment.

RICS is the principal independent body representing professionals employed in the land, property and construction sectors. In Northern Ireland, the organisation represents over 3,000 cross-sectoral members comprising of chartered and associate surveyors, trainees and students

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