Dr Rory Hearne: We must attain a zero-carbon housing system to tackle climate crisis

The Government’s Housing for All Plan must build more energy-efficient social housing and up its rate of retrofitting while using our vacant and derelict buildings to deliver new homes in order to fight climate change, writes Dr Rory Hearne
Dr Rory Hearne: We must attain a zero-carbon housing system to tackle climate crisis

New housing development should be implementing climate mitigation measures, through green building measures, tree planting, water harvesting, underground heating systems, solar panels and wind turbines.

Ensuring a 'Green New Deal' to provide sustainable homes for all should be at the core of the Government's Housing for All Plan.

The housing and climate crisis are two of the main issues we have to solve as a country. 

But while there is a sense of despair about climate issues, there is also a hopeful potential — we have the opportunity to address the housing crisis and raise people’s living standards through improved homes, while also solving the climate crisis. 

It will only be achieved if we make a major change in how we are currently responding to these vital social, economic and environmental concerns. Currently, the targets for housing within the Climate Plan are inadequate to address the scale of both crises. 

At an EU level, Ireland has agreed to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, yet the recently passed Climate Act only sets a 51% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 relative to a baseline of 2018. 

This inadequate response is also visible in the low targets set for reducing emissions from the residential and housing sector. The programme for government and the Climate Action Plan set targets to retrofit 500,000 homes and install 400,000 heat pumps in existing buildings over the next 10 years. 

If achieved, emissions would be reduced from 6m tonnes in 2017 to less than 4m tonnes by 2030. That is only a 33% reduction in emissions, wholly inadequate given the scale of the crisis.

Meanwhile, the targets for retrofitting homes were not even met last year and are unlikely to be met over the next 10 years given the inadequate public funding allocated and the market-dominated approach within climate and housing policy.

Emissions from the housing sector actually increased last year. Yes, increased at this time of climate emergency. The EPA has shown the impact of people working from home as a result of Covid-19 has meant a projected increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 of almost 9% compared to 2019.

This highlights the need for our houses to become far more efficient, particularly in the context of broader home working. As highlighted in this newspaper previously, the number of private homes that were retrofitted last year was more than 25% below target. 

In the area of social housing, which is a key state responsibility in ensuring energy-efficient homes and meeting climate targets, only 1,405 local authority homes were retrofitted in 2020. At that rate of progress, it will take 120 years to retrofit our entire 170,000 social housing stock — way too late for climate change and sea-level rises. 

It indicates the lack of recognition of the emergency that we face on climate change. The level of funding that needs to be allocated to this is absolutely huge. But what is the alternative?

Retrofitting 500,000 homes at a cost of €50,000 per home will require €25bn spending over 10 years, that’s €2.5bn a year. That is over double what we currently spend building social housing each year. But it is necessary. 

The state can borrow cheaply now. This should not be seen as a cost, but rather an investment. 

It is an investment in the future of humanity. In crude accounting terms, the state will reduce costs in health spending associated with poor housing — asthma, bronchitis, mental health impacts. 

It will also be an economic stimulus, and a real opportunity to retrain and reskill workers who have lost their jobs in the pandemic into this new green economy.

The building of new housing is also an incredibly carbon and energy-intensive process. The carbon emissions associated with the construction of a new dwelling in Ireland, known as embodied carbon, is around 30 tonnes.

After burning coal and oil, cement manufacturing is the most carbon-intensive activity on earth. In the new building of homes, therefore, there has to be a prioritisation of alternative and more sustainable construction materials which are low or zero-carbon.

It is in the building of new housing that the over-reliance on the private market to deliver housing is really problematic. The government has been reluctant to put in place higher building efficiency standards in order to keep costs down and profits high for real estate investment funds. 

Yet, high rise developments are more environmentally destructive. Mid-rise, compact, passive housing is more climate-friendly. 

But the private market, particularly Ireland’s new build-to-rent landlords, the global real estate investor funds, want to develop massive high rise, while developers want to build suburban 4-bed semi-detached homes. Neither are sustainable.

The greenest way to deliver new homes is to use existing homes and refurbish derelict buildings. The greenest building is the one already built. 

Ireland has a huge level of vacant and derelict buildings at the heart of our cities and towns. 

The 2016 Census showed there are approximately 180,000 vacant homes, enough for at least six years supply of housing.  

As planning expert Gavin Daly points out, housing will have to become more interventionist and directly involved in dictating what gets built, where, when and by whom. 

For example, why are we allowing the building of more hotels, luxury apartments, and short-stay tourist lets when it is affordable sustainable homes we need?

We have to work to a new vision and new agenda. Private profit-orientated investors and developers will not deliver this. We need a new value system and a new model for planning and housing.

That is why the forthcoming Government’s Housing for All Plan must put transforming our housing system to zero carbon as a central aim. 

A new public home building and retrofit agency is required to be set up that would undertake a huge recruitment of the workers needed to refurbish and build new homes. 

Policy should act through the lens of a common societal and environmental good. Business as usual cannot continue. 

The vested interests of propertied speculators, the fossil fuel interests, and an economy based on endless material consumption can no longer hold sway. We need a revolution in how we understand and approach housing, and its link to climate.

We can end energy poverty through a just transition. We can improve the living conditions and standards of those struggling and living in poverty. 

We can achieve greater equality. We can solve the housing crisis.

If we are to really go about making a real transition all existing and new housing development should be implementing climate mitigation measures, through green building measures, tree planting, water harvesting, underground heating systems, solar panels and wind turbines. 

These require a major investment that the state has the capacity, ability and responsibility to deliver.

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