Looking to the Future
It’s the year 2050.
You wake up to a slowly brightening room and tell your voice activated sun alarm that you’re awake. Your leg hangs out for a moment to test the room temperature and it’s no different to under your blanket. A quiet satisfaction rises as you stretch, trying to locate the songbirds gifting the sweet sound you hear. The birds aren’t visible against the beaming sun rays piercing the trees: only tolerated through your squinted eyes. That brief discomfort is overpowered by knowing today you’ll generate enough solar power for yourself, with surplus for the grid.
I recently wrote about a couple who took to a caravan in search for the perfect spot to build their green home. For many of us, that is a drastic step – but it is born from a growingly important concept for our future. That is to say, climate change is the single largest threat to our species’ survival at present. But, how much of this is caused by housing? Also, how much variation is there between countries?
The greenhouse gas carbon dioxide produced when we burn traditional fuels is the main culprit for rocketing our emissions. This pollutant gas comes from almost all sectors, including a huge portion from our housing.
A Joint Effort
In 2015, 196 countries gathered to create the Paris Climate Change Agreement. This made it the law for its parties to keep global warming below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Each country set its own target, but how are we moving towards them? Have the major players made any changes to their housing sectors?
The USA and China house ~20% of the world’s population but emit a massive 43% of global carbon dioxide. That is dramatically more than any other country. So how do these super-emitters compare to the UK so far?
China Green Home Building Introduction
China’s economy has grown dramatically over the last decade, causing its emissions to spiral out of control. To break the cycle, China’s 2016 National Determined Contribution (NDC) promised total emissions below 6000 Mtce in 2030. This ambitious target will limit the Construction and Building Sector (CBS)’s emissions to 1,380 Mtce (assuming continued 23% total share). Using new figures from the Chinese Statistical Yearbook, how close would the superpower have been to this original target?
Changing the Goalposts
The adapted chart above from Xu et al.’s 2020 paper shows CBS emissions projections through different lines (BS, ES, IS). The lines represent the intensive scenario (IS), benchmark scenario (BS) and extensive scenario (ES).
After the article’s release, 3 statistical yearbooks showed the trend line actually follows the yellow dots (actual scenario (AS)) for 2017, 2018 and 2019 data. Unless the increase per year were to slash by more than half (from 55 Mtce between 2018-19 to 24.7 Mtce) then the old target (OT, marked as X) would have been overshot considerably.
That is the likely reason why President Xi updated the NDC target in 2020 with a convenient omission of the total emissions target.
The above new Chinese data shows the colossal country has progressed towards some of their green goals. That being said, the world looks at China’s total emissions more than anything. So, can China justify omitting the total CO₂ goal for any other reason than failing to reach it? To clarify, you should take a look at the historic graph below.
The graph shows that as China’s GDP rises, so do its emissions. This clear link must be cut before expecting a cap on total emissions.
China’s GDP is growing at parabolic rates as the largest emerging market globally. This is in contrast to the UK and USA who are mature countries; they’ve had the chance to pollute and grow. Due to this link, the total output measure doesn’t tell the whole story. Therefore, CO₂ intensity is a better short term measure than total emissions. In other words, it shows how China is unlinking GDP from CO₂.
President Xi has also promised that a total emissions cap will be re-introduced to China before 2030. The world will expect this from China.
Green Home Building Regulation
The Chinese rulers have used a mixed approach to green home building for the last 15 years. This includes regulation changes with building permits and planning control, government financial incentives and raising awareness.
Chinese authorities realised that they needed a consistent way to assess how green a home is. So, in 2006 the Chinese government created the Green Building Energy Labelling (GBEL) criteria. Initial versions of the system were criticised by scientists at the China Energy Group for being too vague. When compared to the US rating system Khanna stated that “China GBEL offers less flexibility for developers to achieve a specific rating”.
In response, the Chinese government revised the system in 2019 to a more outcome-based approach. They would now test buildings on real-time resource monitoring, durability, convenience and accessibility features.
Since their changes, a staggering 40% of new buildings in China are now green homes. Even with this strong progress, there are still many issues in the country for policymakers to address. Firstly, only 1% of total Chinese homes are now green homes under the GBEL definition. Secondly, people are not moving to new eco-cities due to a lack of incentive. A great example is the ghost city of Caofeidin, a $100 billion eco-city that was empty for five years before people arrived.
For these reasons, Chinese regulation is now diverting to retrofitting homes within major cities.
US Green Home Building Introduction
The contrast between Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump have led to a turbulent time for USA leadership. Despite ex-President Donald Trump withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the country has made significant sustainability progress. The country started to decouple GDP from emissions as early as 2014. Therefore, the USA, unlike China, has been able to reduce total emissions.
As a result, USA pledges on total CO₂ emissions are necessary and reasonable.
In 2016, the country pledged to reduce its emissions from 2005 levels by 17% by 2020 and 26-28% by 2025. President Joe Biden revised the ambitious target this year to include a 50-52% reduction by 2030. During the Leaders Summit announcement, he said “the signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable and the costs of inaction keep mounting”.
Let’s see how the largest economy in the world is doing on its green goals so far.
USA Hitting the Target NDC
You can see that the USA has beaten their 17% reduction 2020 target with a massive 24% emissions reduction. But, what sectors do they owe for this? Secondly, what progress has the USA made with residential emissions production? To clarify, take a look at the data below from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).
You can see that the USA has focussed the majority of renewable energy efforts on generating electric power. However, despite these efforts, our calculations from renewable energy and total consumption show just 12.7% of US energy is renewable. This is improving; representing a solid 27% increase for the Americans from their 2015 levels.
American advances are being made elsewhere, too, including the use of renewable energy in the residential sector.
Green Home Building US
US green home building progress has heavily relied on people installing solar panels to their homes.
Looking at the EIA data for total energy consumption and renewable energy consumption, we can derive some progress figures. From 2015 to 2020, residential renewable energy use increased from 3.3% to 3.8% (15% increase) of total energy use. All of that increase is from solar energy which tripled its residential energy usage in the same timeframe.
Even though the US has made significant steps towards their target, the country still has a way to go. Using simple calculations with energy source data, we can conclude that the majority of residential energy (34.6%) is from coal.
Coal is one of the most destructive energy sources for the environment; accelerating climate change while polluting air and water. To tackle this, US federal and local governments are also promoting green home building through regulation and incentives.
Green Home Building Regulation US
Just like China, the USA needed to define what a green home was before it could tell people to start making them.
Therefore, the USA developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) scale in the late 1990s. It provides a menu of building practices within Energy and Atmosphere, Water Efficiency, Materials and Resources which constitute green building.
Many of the US regulations heavily rely on mandatory LEED certification as the standard of choice. Although this allows some consensus, the criteria are broad and can vary drastically from one building to another. Consequently, governments enforcing LEED certification may not lead to drastically reduced carbon footprints from residents.
Another limitation of regulation is that federal laws are scarce meaning laws are enforced locally. The few federal laws that do exist focus on government building and not residential standards. There is an argument, however, that green home building policies for public buildings have spillover into private sectors. This was described by Matisoff as the “neighbour” effect.
The main local regulations for the residential sector try to control the number of green homes through affordable housing programs. Only 1 state makes LEED certification mandatory for residential homes – Connecticut. This is not enforced and insufficient resources are made available from local governments to developers to assist in obtaining certification. So, US regulations need to develop if its residential sector is to stamp out its gargantuan carbon footprint…
Green Home Building Incentives US
Another strong tool in the US Government’s extensive arsenal is incentives to drive change.
For green home building, many incentives exist to motivate homeowners and developers to consider the environment in their building choices. These include property tax reassessments, green funds, parking incentives, green roof mandates, tax relief. Funding, however, is limited.
Some cities, such as Portland and Wilmington, have been particularly innovative in structuring policy levels to a building’s age. These forward thinking cities prioritise funding for the least efficient structures. This is necessary, as expanding the USA’s 3.8% residential renewable energy use which will heavily rely on retrofitting existing buildings. For this to occur, incentives and tax credits will prove much more effective than the current “command and control” approaches with mandatory certification of new homes.
UK Green Home Building Introduction
The UK is at the forefront of combating climate change, being the first major economy to commit to net zero carbon emissions. That was back in 2019, so how has the last country on our list made progress towards its goal since?
In 2020, the UK presented its first lone NDC securing itself as a climate pioneer: 68% emissions reduction by 2030. This was an impressive 30% reduction in absolute emissions compared to its previous target of 56% below 1990 levels. Ambitious targets for Brexit Britain; is the country up to the task?
As you can see here, the 68% target is an extrapolation of progress prior to 2020 data. This showed a huge reduction of 10% to the yellow dot (actual scenario (AS)): likely a product of the pandemic.
So, the UK is performing exceptionally well and is on course for its goal. Compared to the other countries mentioned in this article so far, it has made the most astounding progress. But, were they starting from an even playing field? Take a look at the UK’s emissions vs GDP graph below.
The UK decoupled GDP from emissions by the year 2000, compared with 2014 in the USA and an ongoing challenge in China. This has given the ingenuitive island a head start.
With this extra time afforded to the country, what sectors have innovated most? How have developers used green home building methods to contribute to the success? Let’s break down the energy sources entering the UK energy grid.
UK Renewable Energy
Renewables generated 43% of British electricity in 2020: they have overtaken fossil fuels as the UK’s main energy source. The majority of this is thanks to wind energy, which the island plans to double its energy production from by 2030. This is the first step in the UK’s ten point plan for a green industrial revolution. Here, we’ll take a deep dive into step 7 which is “greener buildings” for the UK population.
UK Green Home Building
If Boris’ plan for carbon neutrality by 2050 is to work, major advances in domestic energy use need to be made. That is because, based on national statistics, the UK’s residential sector emitted 16% of the country’s CO2 in 2020. This means UK residents emitted 2% more than in 2019, a massive 14% rise in their emissions.
This follows a 2019 report by The Committee on Climate Change suggesting that UK housing is not “fit for the future”. The main suggestions to improve this were consistency of policy, tighter regulations, increasing funding and retrofitting existing homes. There was a huge initiative led by Boris Johnson following this report to “Build Back Greener” following the Covid-19 pandemic.
As part of this, a £1.5bn government “Green Homes Grant” was born, giving homeowners £5,000 toward green retrofit improvements. This would help people get the expensive renovations needed to simultaneously lower their bills and carbon footprint. Shortly after, the scheme was scrapped leaving no support or plan for developing the 29 million homes in the UK. When pressed about the reasons for this, Boris Johnson replied, “we are not cutting the green homes grant. The problem is that there has not been enough take-up”. In response, there was an outrage by residents claiming that accessing promised funds from the outsourced scheme was impossible.
UK Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive
The major remaining government incentive is the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). This pays an annual support payment to those investing in low carbon alternatives to boilers. Most commonly, this comes in the form of a heat pump: a device which costs an average of £25,000 to install. The RHI scheme promises no assistance with this massive initial cost and gives 7 years of maintenance payments. These can be withdrawn at any time, based on the government’s allocation of resources.
There were only 6 months between the conception and termination of the Green Homes Grant. Considering this, how can homeowners now fork out the price of a deposit on a heat pump without guarantees of support? So, it comes as no surprise that the UK is 30x short of the government’s promise of 600,000 new pumps a year by 2026.
In conclusion, new policies are desperately needed if the UK is going to cut, rather than grow, its residential carbon emissions.
Even though 2 countries contribute almost half of the world’s CO₂ production, both are taking active steps to reduce it. On the surface, it appears that China is lagging behind the progress of the USA. However, with China’s growing economy, decoupling of GDP from emissions is needed before absolute emissions can start to drop.
The UK is far ahead in the renewable energy race, with 43% of total energy generated from renewable resources. That is compared with 12.7% in the USA and 26% in China. Despite the progress in power generation, all areas are facing challenges disrupting the residential sector. To clarify, the main challenge seems to be around motivating civilians to retrofit existing homes with expensive technology. A multi-faceted approach will be needed including spreading information, “command and control” regulation and incentives to motivate civilians. It may be easier for governments to ignore this, and focus solely on renewable energy generation whilst residences continue large emission loads.
The spirit of the Paris Agreement, however, was to reduce emissions as much as possible. That is not to hide them in over-generation of renewable energy to avoid tackling the very real logistical challenges of residential retrofit innovation.
Overall, progress since the 2015 policy has been huge, and we are on-track globally for a better future for ourselves and our planet.
About The Authors
This article was written by Dr Sermed Mezher MbChB (Hons) MRes, environmentalist, experienced property investor, published author in Global Paediatric Health and The Journal of Medical Ethics, and medical doctor. He is the founder of cashhouse.co.uk.
It was co-authored by Sara Badri BA in Graphic Design, MA in Media and Cultural Studies. Community Researcher at Shabaka Social Enterprise.
Sermed has a special interest in educating people on how to improve their situation. He believes that physical and financial health are intimately linked.