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Joined-up walking to cut down our carbon footprint

ImageThe ODPM has missed a trick adopted in California in not insisting that smaller buildings are brought up to contemporary energy efficiency standards

Do you know what your carbon footprint is? Or, as the TV ads from BP have been asking, do you even know what the concept of a carbon footprint is?

The answer to the second question is becoming more familiar. It is the contribution that a given entity – a corporation, a building, a family, a person – makes to the total emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Realistically that is usually measured by knowing just how much fossil fuel each entity is responsible for burning: hence, carbon footprint.

That is the concept. That is the easy bit. The real question is: how big is the footprint each makes? As we know, that is perfectly possible to measure, with some precision. Invariably, such a calculation renders very salutary conclusions. It shows that, compared to average emissions across the world, our footprints are far from petite – more like bleeding great size 12s every time.

In another of its advertisements, BP has acknowledged just how enormous an amount of energy it has found itself able to save over the past five years. That waste was found throughout the system, even though it began the exercise widely regarded as one of the UK’s most efficient companies, and with its chief executive regularly voted our most admired businessman.

There are certain obvious ways in which a carbon footprint can be controlled. The most obvious time is when there is an expansion in the size of a building.

That extension may well be built to the highest new standards required – although as the Building Research Establishment has revealed, an alarming number of new constructions are failing to meet approved Building Regulations standards after construction.

But even if we assume that compliance with the law is achieved, the fact remains that the very existence of an extension will have increased the total amount of energy burnt at (and hence the total carbon footprint of) the address in question.

There is an obvious response. It is to require consequential improvements upon the original property. There are parts of California where, before permission is granted for a new development, the applicant must demonstrate that sufficient investments have been made elsewhere in the existing system to counterbalance the extra demand. Strict adherence to this requirement is one reason why California – that land of over-indulgence and apparent profligacy – has seen absolutely no increase in per capita electricity consumption over the past 15 years.

In England and Wales, just such a change was expected to be introduced in the new Building Regulations coming in at the end of next month. Certainly the concept of requiring “consequential improvements” to the original construction, whenever an existing building is expanded, had formed a key part of the anticipatory work.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), which oversees such changes, had highlighted such requirements both throughout their regular informal discussions with the building industry, and for their statutory consultation exercise. The formal consultation attracted a far larger number of responses than most such governmental exercises: many other departments could learn lessons from ODPM’s skills at garnering reactions from diverse interests.

Specific questions were asked about whether the concept was acceptable: that received a 75% approval rating. And then that the level of requirement for such additional work was too stringent. Only 19% felt this to be true. Over 80% endorsed the proposal, with 30% urging the government to be tougher.

Such rules were, in part, prompted by Article 6 of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which requires buildings being refurbished to be brought up to contemporary energy standards – but only if over 1000 square metres in size.

So for larger buildings, there will (eventually) be no questions, but those are the only existing buildings where the whole “consequential improvements” concept will apply. To the consternation of many, ODPM ministers have decided to ignore what their consultation document said; to ignore the positive reaction from respondents; and to permit all buildings below 1000 square meters to carry on being expanded with nary a care for their carbon footprints.

Instead, an interdepartmental working party has been created to review energy (and water) use in existing buildings. It is due to report this summer, as is the Energy Review.

Bearing in mind how much of that DTI-led Energy Review has been prompted by concern at the UK’s carbon footprint, it would be nice to believe that the two review teams might actually work together. And produce conclusions which augmented the goals of each other. We are surely going to need such joined-up thinking if we are to shrink our carbon footprint.


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