It may not have felt like it, but January was officially the warmest on record globally and February was the wettest in the UK since records began. For most of us, this is a cause for concern and should act as a catalyst for accelerating our collective journey towards net zero. So why has the Labour party decided to scrap its pledge to spend £28bn under its Green Prosperity Plan at such a critical juncture? If the polls are to be believed, this is our future government, so why has it parked its climate-change aspirations?

Ms Reeves and co should prepare to inherit an impending climate catastrophe on top of a mounting fiscal nightmare

The climate figures are something those of us operating in construction and property should be invested in. Although we’ve seen a seismic shift in attitudes towards sustainability in construction in recent years, buildings still account for 39 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions – 11 per cent from materials and construction and 28 per cent from their operations – and the UN says the construction and operation of buildings constitute 36 per cent of global energy use. I’ve said it before, but we run the risk of being regarded by future generations as the equivalent of the cigarette makers of the 1960s who worried little about exporting death as long as their sales rocketed.

Under the current government, we’ve seen row-back after row-back on climate-change targets, but it seemed that the chancellor-in-waiting Rachel Reeves wanted to take a refreshing change of direction. However, after chopping back the original £28bn budget by around 80 per cent, it now seems as though the self-styled green chancellor’s climate ambitions have already fallen by the wayside. Initially promising to retrofit 19 million homes to reduce emissions, the new plan only covers retrofit for a meagre 5 million, which will make meeting carbon-reduction and fuel-poverty targets a challenge, to say the least.

The filleted plan also fails to make any accommodation for climate-change-adaptation measures, which the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has estimated would carry a price tag of £10bn. This figure would allow us to reduce our vulnerability to climate risks like increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and the increased flooding we’re already seeing taking its toll on vast swathes of the country. Those in our sector, unlike the Conservative and Labour parties, are not blind to these climate challenges and are increasingly using low-carbon building systems, incorporating innovative products like hemp-lime as an alternative to planet-warming concrete, utilising technology to improve efficiencies, and implementing sustainable supply-chain practices. 

That said, the UKGBC also found that investors, owners and occupiers of offices in the UK are still missing opportunities to decarbonise. Be that by tackling the low-hanging fruit of relatively low-cost, low-disruption measures or by failing to facilitate more efficient deep retrofit, they’re simply not able to make significant dents in operational energy use or reap the rewards of retrofit over new-build when it comes to embodied carbon, either – the latter having been cited as one of the reasons Marks & Spencer’s landmark Oxford Street scheme was rejected by secretary of state Michael Gove. One way or another, the UKGBC estimates that the office sector needs to reduce energy consumption by 59 per cent if it’s going to meet carbon trajectory targets set out in its Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, and that a whopping 77 per cent of UK office stock could be unlettable by 2030.

We can’t sit twiddling our thumbs for the next five years and pretend to be surprised when we find ourselves with a glut of buildings no longer fit for purpose. We need this government and the next to focus on developing smart, cohesive regulation – the UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard expected this year would be a start – and incentivising owners to take deep retrofit seriously in the short and long term by making it more financially viable, heeding the calls from industry to reduce the VAT builders currently have to pay, for instance.

If we don’t see real progress on retrofit soon, Ms Reeves and co should prepare to inherit an impending climate catastrophe on top of a mounting fiscal nightmare. To use a cricketing metaphor – perhaps her party should be padding up and getting ready to face any criticism as it leaves the pavilion, looking to double down on its pledge to fund a greener, more prosperous Britain, rather than conceding defeat before they’re even called to the crease.

First published in Construction News on 13th March 2024.

Get in touch
Graham Harle Chief Executive Officer

Graham Harle
Chief Executive Officer

Julian Barlow

Julian Barlow
PR Consultant