Sci&Tech Writer Georgia Brooks examines the drive to make the UK’s homes more sustainable

Written by Georgia Brooks

One of the many approaches to combating climate change is through making homes more energy and heat efficient to reduce their consumption. The UK’s homes are the least energy efficient in Europe, with ramifications not only for the climate, but also on a social front, as some must choose between eating and heating in the colder months, and there are an estimated 3,000 avoidable deaths a year from the cold. However, while there is a lot of guidance on designing new homes to fulfil this criteria, it is equally crucial to consider updating existing buildings to improve their heat efficiency, the idea of ‘retrofitting.’ 

There are an estimated 3,000 avoidable deaths a year from the cold

If every UK home had these cost-effective and conventional energy saving properties installed, energy use would fall by 25%. Continuing with the current plans in place this is more likely to be around a 12% reduction, a long way off government targets. Hence more ambitious targets and changes are vital, including the idea of ‘deep retrofitting,’ making substantial changes to buildings all at once rather than incremental improvements. The Dutch approach to this, ‘Energiesprong,’ which has been trialled in Nottingham, could be one solution: a whole house retrofit to reach a net-zero energy home. This is typically achieved by installing a thermally efficient façade, a solar PV roof and an energy hub to every home. 

Launched in late 2021, Insulate Britain is an organisation campaigning for the government to fund the retrofitting of all social housing in the UK by 2025, and for an immediate promise to fund and take responsibility for retrofitting all homes by 2030. They believe that this will save lives and improve health (hence reducing demand on the NHS), create skilled employment, and provide the most effective method for reducing carbon emissions as well as improving energy security. However, as a relatively small UK-based movement, they have been unable to achieve much change. Despite the potential validity of what they are calling for, their tactics (which include blocking motorways) have alienated potential supporters. Although they use similar methods to Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain are not officially affiliated with the much higher profile group, and have failed to gain backing from any influential figures. Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer said while there was a place for direct action, Insulate Britain was ‘not necessarily always doing it in the most constructive way.’ In this vein, the response in Parliament focused more on the damaging repercussions of the motorway blockings and traffic disruptions, rather than really responding to the group’s demands, suggesting perhaps that their campaign approach was not especially appropriate, even if their aims do have valid grounding. 

The most effective method for reducing carbon emissions as well as improving energy security

Current and previous approaches from the government with regards to retrofitting have undoubtedly been insufficient. The flagship Green Homes Grant scheme, which offered £5,000 to cover two thirds of work to insulate homes, reached less than 7% of the intended 600,000 households, and only about half of these were low-income. It was scrapped in March 2021, as it failed to engage with the retrofitting industry, with many claimants saying that they couldn’t find available accredited installers. A wider scale scheme, such as what Insulate Britain are calling for, would be able to incorporate and support the retrofitting industry much more effectively, and would help to improve insulation for the most vulnerable. 

Overall, retrofitting all UK homes to become heat efficient undoubtedly has the potential to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, along with a whole host of other social benefits. The government’s previous retrofit schemes have not been large-scale or thorough enough to achieve any sort of substantial improvements, and this needs to change. The more radical approach and demands of Insulate Britain have met with minimal success, but that doesn’t mean that their aims are unfounded. To meet our environmental goals retrofitting homes must become widespread in the UK as soon as possible. 

Insulate Britain did not respond to our request for comment. 

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