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The forgotten sector at the heart of UK’s efforts to cut carbon emissions

ImageNon-residential buildings are frequently overlooked when it comes to making energy policies. Perhaps we should look at them in a slightly more positive way

We work in them. We learn in them. We eat in them. When we are ill, we use them. We entertain, and are entertained, in them. And the people who govern our lives, they are based in them too.

Their formal definition is “non residential buildings”. And as any first year marketing student will tell you, if you begin by describing anything entirely as what it is not, it starts you off at quite a disadvantage.

All of which is probably why, when it comes to making policies that encourage energy efficiency, they always come at the end of the list. Homes are more important because voters live in them. Cars are more important because voters drive them. Heavy industry is more important because it produces the goods we use. Even aviation is more important, because (perversely) it still retains glamorous connotations.  But non-residential buildings? Who can really get enthused?

Turn the argument round

What if we turn the argument around, and express it in terms of just how much fuel is consumed in such buildings? Then suddenly this “negative-concept” sector looms far higher in importance.

Look at the figures. There are approaching two million of these “negative – concept” buildings. In other words, about one for every eleven homes. But they do tend to be rather bigger. Because between them, they are responsible for around 18% of UK energy consumption. Or put even more starkly, for every three kilowatt hours of fuel  burnt in our homes, two kilowatt hours are burnt in these places that we do not live in.

In 1995, there were 91 million tonnes of carbon emitted from such buildings. Government policy is to cut this by 60% by 2050. Down by 51 million tonnes. If we heed the climatologists warnings that  80% cuts are necessary, then the number needs to reduce by 71 million tonnes.

Large figures. How can we realise them?. Well, under present policies, government reckons that it will deliver almost 25m of these tonnes by 2020. The two main vehicles are the Climate Change Agreements , and  tighter Building Regulations. On the face of it, both sensible, effective policies.

But the Climate Change Agreements (CCAs) have been made with 46 separate industrial sectors. In return for agreed investments in energy reductions, the firms get an 80% tax break on the Climate Change Levy. In gross terms, this has been an exemplar policy.

But do we know what proportion of these savings really are occurring in  the factory building envelope itself, as opposed to making the factory process itself more efficient? The inference of the headline figure,  that nearly 11 million tonnes is being saved in improvements to the factory buildings themselves, suggest that this is the priority. Really?  I wonder how many EiBI readers whose responsibilities include CCA management would concur. Certainly I have seen no official analysis of CCA which would substantiate this claim.

So, what about building regulations? As we have seen from the recent National Audit Office report, {see news pages} there are beginning to be really serious questions asked about official complacency regarding compliance levels. Whether what appears on the drawing board is what is actually built. Most of the evidence collected to date on compliance has concerned new buildings (and then, mostly concentrating on homes). In the case of non-residential buildings, the majority of the extra 6 million tonnes expected by 2020  from tighter building regs are due to come from refurbishment and renovations.

How many measures actually take place?

Again, how much oversight takes place, to give assurance that the measures building control requires are actually in situ when the work is completed? The answer is, very little. And of course that assumes building control has been informed about the work in the first place.

Yes of course the Carbon Reduction Commitment trading scheme, to be introduced in 2010 for the larger commercial sector, is a step in the right direction. But it is now being drawn so tightly that , even its greatest champions think it can reduce emissions by no more than 3.7 million tonnes by 2020. EU products policy –  phasing out inefficient appliances, lighting, office machines – will all help. As long as it progresses at about three times its present speed.

And, who knows, might we even see all that wonderful rhetoric about de-carbonising the government estate, and  the public sector only occupying the top quartile of buildings , come true? Presumably only if the dead hand of the Office of Government Commerce is removed.

This year every public sector building has to have its energy rating, and larger ones must display these prominently. That will be good for some “naming and shaming”. Hopefully after 2010 the equivalent private sector buildings will be included in these requirements.

There are lots of bright ideas around to improve the buildings we don’t live in. All it takes is imagination, determination and political will. So, what are we waiting for? For starters, let this no longer be described via a negative, the “non” sector.

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