Rory Hearne: Climate Action Plan could worsen housing inequalities

The inadequacy of state imagination, courage, and investment in retrofitting homes and providing affordable green new homes through tackling vacancy and dereliction makes the Taoiseach’s speeches at COP26 ring very hollow
Rory Hearne: Climate Action Plan could worsen housing inequalities

Sarah Kate Fitzpatrick and Catherine O'Rourke, from Dublin and Liverpool, taking part in a Climate Action march in Dublin, to coincide with the COP26 Conference. Photograph: Leah Farrell /

"Nobody is going to force you to go out and insulate your home particularly when you can’t afford to do so", explained Tanaiste Leo Varadkar at the Climate Action Plan launch. 


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Does that mean if I can't afford the €50,000 to retrofit my home (i.e. most households) then I face a future of cold winters at home with rising energy bills? Will we see a hugely unequal transition between those who can afford to retrofit and those who cannot? Is the Climate Action Plan a transition restricted to the wealthy? How can Irish households afford to fork out for retrofits with one of the highest costs of living in the EU, including rents, mortgages, childcare etc? Individualising the cost of climate action will inevitably exacerbate inequalities. This risks a public backlash against necessary climate measures.

One of our biggest challenges is to decarbonise residential buildings so they require less energy (11% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the residential sector), and ensure building of new homes is zero carbon and planned in a way to minimise transport emissions. The Climate Action Plan aims to retrofit 500,000 homes to BER B2 standard by 2030. This will cost €28 billion, with most of it expected to come from private individuals. But grants are inadequate and ‘green’ loans available from the banks have unaffordable interest rates. One in six households are in energy poverty, including low-income families with children, lone parents, renters, and people with disabilities. They cannot afford retrofitting.

Next year the state will invest a mere €200 million in retrofitting, enough for just 7,000 homes. At that rate it will take 70 years to retrofit the 500,000 homes, missing the 2030 target by 60 years.

Renters, already pushed to their limits with high rents, face huge potential costs given poor building standards in the private rental sector. There’s no measures for retrofitting rental homes. Minimum BER standards are not coming in for rental properties until 2025, and only “where feasible”. So no obligation for landlords until 2025. Tenants will be stuck with higher bills and no options. Are tenants to ‘play their part’ in reducing emissions by turning off the heat and freezing? And what protections have been put in place for tenants when landlords start using retrofitting to avoid the RPZ rules, evict tenants and raise rents.

The Government plans to retrofit just 2,400 social homes in 2022. That means less than a fifth of social housing will be retrofitted by 2030. The state should retrofit every local authority unit by 2030, at least 10,000 units a year.

Where is the urgency and just transition? 

An advertisement blitz will encourage us to retrofit, to get the benefits of lower energy costs and help the environment. It will be framed as our responsibility, but really meant as our fault, and we will be ‘punished’ for our lack of income to do it. This is neoliberal social and environmental policy, blaming and making the poor pay for inequality and their ‘lack’ of climate action. It is the opposite of the plan’s commitment to a ‘just transition’ where “existing inequalities are not exacerbated”.

There’s also a major contradiction where climate policy promotes city and town living, to reduce transport emissions and achieve the ’15 minute city’, yet tax breaks and planning policy promotes Build-to-Rent investor funds taking over new housing provision, providing unaffordable, high rise, micro 1 bed and two-bedroom units. Families are pushed to commuter belts to try find affordable housing. What’s the point in an unaffordable 15-minute city, that no family or average earner can afford to live in?

Along with retrofitting, tackling vacancy and dereliction to reuse existing buildings should be a priority as it has much less carbon emissions than new building. Infrastructure such as water and waste is in place for vacant and derelict buildings, and they’re largely located in town and city areas, that can thus reduce commuting and transport emissions. Yet, incredibly, there is not one mention of the use of derelict and vacant buildings in the Climate Action Plan.

Developers and investors want new build high rise or suburban semi-ds. So it seems even climate policy is influenced by the market and investor lobbyists. But the market has failed over and over to solve issues in housing. Why are we expecting it to be any different in delivering retrofits and green affordable homes?

Market ideology governing how we tackle climate 

The ESRI demonstrated economic, social, and environmental benefits and the capacity of the state to borrow an additional €7bn a year to invest in housing and climate. But the Minister for Finance and his Department are not allowing the state to undertake this additional borrowing. They dismissed the ESRI report, revealing their austerity ideology. There’s a fundamental problem in the Minister for Finance’s conservative and short-term economic thinking on this. Their vision is blinkered by a market ideology that is opposed to a reimagining and transformation of the role of the state, society, and economy according to new values prioritising social and environmental needs.

In housing we could achieve a climate transition that improves people’s living conditions. But the current approach means mainly those with savings and income to invest will reap the benefits. The state borrow massively to provide grants and low-cost loans to retrofit. It should set up a new public homes and retrofit company that coordinates regional local authority retrofit and building, to refurbish vacant and derelict buildings and build zero carbon affordable new homes on public land. A 1bn fund should be put in place for this public company and local authorities, to CPO purchase and refurbish derelict and vacant units on scale. Local Authorities are set to purchase a mere 2,500 vacant units by 2026.

If you cannot afford a retrofit refurbishment you could be punished because of the unequal transition to green-proof homes.
If you cannot afford a retrofit refurbishment you could be punished because of the unequal transition to green-proof homes.

This should involve communities and individuals in a cooperative way to redevelop our country around nurturing community and sustainability, ensuring people have homes in thriving, inclusive, nature-friendly, urban spaces, rather than leaving people suffer from a market-based, individualized, atomized, deeply unequal transition.

The inadequacy of state imagination, courage, and investment in retrofitting homes and providing affordable green new homes through tackling vacancy and dereliction makes the Taoiseach’s speeches at COP26 ring very hollow. Where is the vacant homes tax and the derelict property tax? Why is there not a major scheme of 100% grants and low-cost residential retrofit loans in place?

Business as usual cannot continue. Green-washing in policy should be analysed for what it is. The vested interests of propertied speculators, fossil fuel interests, and an economy based on endless growth in material consumption can no longer hold sway. We need a revolution in delivering energy-efficient, zero-carbon, affordable housing for all, not to be just a luxury for the few.

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