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Study finds England’s housing policy would use up the entire carbon budget

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If the government sticks to its pledge to build 300,000 homes a year, England would use up its entire 1.5C carbon budget on housing alone, according to a new study.


Current trends in making existing homes more efficient and the building of new homes under a business as usual scenario would mean that the housing system would use up more than a tenth of the country’s cumulative carbon budget by the year 2050.

Radically retrofitting existing houses, cutting the number of second homes, stopping people from buying houses as financial investments, and making people live in smaller buildings would be more sustainable ways to address the housing crisis, according to the paper.

A carbon budget is the amount of emissions that a country can emit. The researchers did not look at how this compares in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but they believe it is likely to be the same.

“In the long run, we argue that England can’t go on building new houses forever, and needs to start thinking about better and more systematic solutions as to how we are going to house everyone within our environmental limits.”

The paper is the first to comprehensively analyse the impact of the government’s response to the housing crisis on national carbon and biodiversity goals. The researchers say that secure housing is a fundamental human right. There are potential conflicts between the objectives of housing and sustainable living.

They looked at two models, one for evaluating the emissions needed to run UK houses and another for emissions from constructing new housing. Housing is set to be 50% more efficient by the year 2050 as a result of decarbonising trends between 1990 and 2019.

According to the study, if trends continue, existing housing and building and running new houses will be the main contributors to emissions in England. The amount of emissions from existing homes is high because large parts of the housing stock are prewar, and more challenging to insulate. Half of the homes built between 1919 and 1930 have uninsulated solid walls which account for half of heat loss.

Thermal image of terraced houses in Guildford illustrates the energy cost of heat loss.
Thermal image of terraced houses in Guildford illustrates the energy cost of heat loss. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Researchers looked at the impact of these trends on the environment. If we are serious about staying within our 1.5C carbon budget, we need to see how drastic the problem is, and how ambitious the solutions actually have to be.

The paper warns that policies to protect wildlife will have to be very effective if housing is not allowed to undermine the government’s big biodiversity target.

All new developments need to have a “biodiversity net gain” in order to meet the government’s targets to halving wildlife declines. Commercial and residential building developments are threatening 25% of the threatened species on the red list.

The researchers say retrofitting existing stock so all homes could be zero carbon by 2050 would save 38% of the cumulative carbon budgets for 1.5C.

The paper didn’t look at how many homes the government should be building, but it’s possible to meet housing needs without rapid expansion of housing stock. The researchers estimate that there are 1.2 million empty or underused homes.

Dr Kate Simpson from Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study, said, “This is an ambitious paper that highlights some of the big problems with the current UK housing system, our collective lack of a cohesive strategy to meet carbon budgets and fundamental biodiversity considerations.” We need more like this.

I agree that we need to find incentives to bring empty homes back into use, protect the embodied carbon of existing homes and prioritize efforts to upgrade those to reduce energy demand, while ensuring affordable housing and comfort for all.

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