By Simon McWhirter, Head of Engagement
Here are two hard facts. If we don’t decarbonise our homes we won’t hit our climate targets. But if we simply order householders to foot big bills to make that change, many will refuse and understandably so.
Consequences of change
Within days of the press reporting a suggestion that people might be fined for not replacing carbon emitting gas boilers, the notion was rejected by government. But the reaction was significant. A critical politician dubbed the move to greener homes an imposition by a “policy elite”. Those of us advocating for greener buildings, which are crucial, should pay close attention. It is not my job to sit in judgement on politicians or guess at voters’ sympathies, but I am confident of this: if those of us who care deeply about driving real change to tackle climate change put ourselves on the wrong side of public opinion, then we’ll all have a problem. It’s very easy to spend our time talking to like-minded allies. Preaching to our peers is comfortable. But some politicians and voters see these issues very differently. We will only truly win hearts and minds if we think about the consequences of change for people’s wallets.
What’s the answer?
First of all, we have to make our case anew.
Forty percent of our carbon emissions come from our buildings, and we can’t seriously deal with climate change without addressing that problem. We won’t put things right with long speeches and good intentions. This demands real change.
Secondly, we need to look at smart ways to fund this transformation.
At the Active Building Centre we’ve suggested the new UK Infrastructure Bank could play a role, providing jobs and skills as it funds the installation of new technology. There have been plenty of ideas in this area, not all of them successful, but we cannot afford to stop innovating. We will need imaginative proposals on financing from our banks as well as our politicians.
Technology will help too. Ministers believe that as low carbon technology grows more advanced and becomes more popular costs will fall, just as they have with electric cars. I agree, and we are conducting research into a range of options – for example, better performing heat pumps – to help make it happen. This won’t transform the funding challenge overnight, but in time it could make a difference.
And remember, this is not all about domestic boilers in existing homes. Much of the change will centre on rethinking the carbon footprint of our warehouses and offices, hospitals and schools, and on the decisions made by companies building brand new properties.
Thirdly, we have a duty to explain.
This really matters. No one has told many consumers what a heat pump really is, or whether hydrogen boilers are a practical alternative or a distant prospect. A focus on up-front costs has obscured the fact heat pumps can be significantly more energy-efficient than gas boilers – cheaper to run – as well as less carbon-intensive. If we don’t demonstrate what low carbon homes look like and how they can work, we will never bring people with us.
That will include turning these technologies into truly appealing products. The ability to set the heating in your house room by room for example is not just a good thing for the planet, it’s an appealing way of controlling how much money you’re spending and making sure you’re not wasting cash on maintaining toasty but empty rooms. All these investments, in lower energy heating or better insulated homes will save consumers money in the end. But we need to make that case with the right evidence and ideas, and in the right tone. If our arguments are hectoring and insistent, if they are heard as nothing more than orders to meet big bills, we will lose the debate.
That’s why the Active Building Centre has created buildings full of the low carbon technology of the future that people can see for themselves. It’s why we are advising on new developments where this vital technology comes as standard. It’s why explaining matters so much. The arguments for creating low carbon buildings are overwhelmingly strong, but they are not the only arguments in this debate. Those of us making them are going to have to answer concerns about cost, put forward practical solutions and make those solutions affordable. Above all, we are going to have to listen carefully to the sceptics and the critics to make sure we are making a persuasive case.