As the countdown to COP26 begins, where are housing associations on the journey to net zero?

Kate Henderson
Kate Henderson

Kate Henderson, 29 October 2020

In almost exactly one year’s time, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference bringing together heads of state and climate change experts and campaigners from around the world. The aim of the conference – more commonly referred to as COP26 will be to agree international action to tackle the climate crisis.

And the need for co-ordinated global action is more urgent than ever: sea levels are rising, rivers are flooding, forests are burning and ice caps are melting. All caused by the billions of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere every year. Including from our homes.

We cannot eliminate the impacts of climate change, but we can invest now in mitigation and adaption to reduce the risks we face and limit human suffering. Taking strong, bold steps to address and adapt to climate change need not invite economic gloom or widen inequality. In fact the opposite is true.

With the eyes of the world on the UK, this is a unique opportunity for both the government and our sector to show real leadership. With the right policies, funding and technologies we have the ability to radically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, promote green growth, improve energy efficiency and create more resilient communities in a socially equitable way.

Now is the time for government to set out ambitious plans for decarbonising existing homes and building new green homes, and for delivering that long-promised retrofit revolution that will benefit not just social housing and social tenants but pave the way for the nationwide roll-out of a retrofit programme across all tenures.

So, as the countdown to COP26 begins, where are housing associations on that journey to net zero? What challenges lie ahead? And how can we build momentum over the next 12 months?

The race to zero

In line with commitments made at an earlier UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, the government has legislated for the UK to become net zero in terms of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As housing contributes around one fifth of all carbon emissions nationally, the UK will only achieve this net zero ambition if we decarbonise our existing homes and ensure that new homes are built to much higher environmental standards.

We already lag behind other countries when it comes to energy efficient homes, in part because of the age of our housing stock. And although the social housing sector continues to out-perform other tenures in terms of EPC ratings, too many homes remain cold and poorly insulated and too many people remain trapped in fuel poverty. COP26 presents a real opportunity to close the gap and deliver greener and cleaner homes.

But we have a long way to go. Soon-to-be-published research from the National Housing Federation suggests that the vast majority of housing associations do not yet have plans in place on how they will become net zero by 2050.

If we are to join the race to zero – and add our weight to calls for a green recovery which tackles the climate crisis and creates green jobs – then we need to lead by example.

Challenges

We know there is no lack of ambition in the sector. Housing associations are passionate and committed to tackling climate change and improving the health and wellbeing of residents by improving the energy efficiency of homes and cutting fuel bills. But the scale of the task we face in decarbonising around 2.5m homes across England is huge.

And there are significant challenges to overcome. The National Housing Federation has recently published research on the key barriers faced by housing associations in decarbonising homes. These include challenges on funding and finance, on the need for policy clarity and certainty from government, on understanding and adopting new technologies, on how we develop skills and supply chains and on how we engage and enthuse residents.

But we must overcome these challenges.

And we will.

Next steps

The sector is already innovating: for example, exploring new forms of green finance, piloting new approaches to retrofit and co-creating sustainability plans with residents. And we are committed to working in partnership with all stakeholders – government, local agencies, investors, suppliers and tenants – to overcome the challenges so that we can decarbonise at scale and pace.

Over the next year, I know we will see new ideas and more innovation emerging from our sector.

And we at the National Housing Federation stand ready to play our part: driving the decarbonisation agenda forward, calling for ambitious standards, building new partnerships and new networks, encouraging co-operation and collaboration across the sector, and supporting housing association across the country on their journey to net zero.

2020 has been a difficult year for all of us and we are still the middle of a public health crisis. 2021 will be an equally critical year: both in terms of tackling the ongoing health crisis but also in responding to the growing climate crisis. But 2020 has shown what is possible when communities and countries work together to respond to a common threat.

We need the same commitment and determination to tackle climate change.

The countdown to COP26 starts now.