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Clock ticks on greener homes as UK seeks jobs and emissions cuts

[LONDON] To meet a binding goal of achieving net-zero climate-changing emissions by 2050, Britain needs to upgrade its 29 million homes to use less fossil-fuel energy, often through measures such as adding insulation or swapping to low-carbon heating.

But, according to John Alker, policy director with the UK Green Building Council, "there are more homes in this country than there are minutes between now and 2050".

Reaching the zero-carbon target by mid-century means Britain needs to retrofit almost two homes a minute - something it is so far nowhere near prepared to do, he told an online London Climate Action Week event on Friday.

Getting to that point will be a challenge - from figuring out how to persuade landlords to improve homes they don't live in, to experimenting with how to acceptably alter houses in historic conservation areas, said Sarah Fletcher, who works on energy efficiency for the Greater London Authority.

But the payoffs are potentially enormous, said Paul Toyne of the London Sustainable Development Commission.

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They include a surge in new jobs and more comfortable homes that are cheaper to run - not to mention reductions in planet-warming emissions, fuel poverty and inequality, he added.

"If we choose to invest in this space, we get all those benefits," he said.

Britain's homeowners have not had a particularly positive experience with retrofitting up to now - if they've heard of it at all, said David Pierpoint, chief executive of the Retrofit Academy Centre of Excellence, a non-profit training company.

In the last decade, many efforts to make homes more energy-efficient were shoddily carried out or drew little interest, he said.

A government-backed green programme to spur homeowner investment in insulation and other energy-efficiency measures, launched in 2013, failed to produce clear energy savings, according to a government audit, and was shut down.

Now, to revive interest in such efforts - and train more people to do the work - "we have to do for retrofit what we did about 15 years ago for recycling and waste", said Mr Pierpoint.

"We need to make (taking action) the norm," he added.


The good news is that as Britain looks for ways out of a serious unemployment and economic crisis spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, retrofitting homes could bring both legions of jobs and progress towards national climate goals, Mr Pierpoint said.

About 430,000 new workers are needed to deliver "anything like the level of retrofits that will be required", he noted.

Mr Alker, of the UK Green Building Council, said the government is looking at whether a home energy-efficiency push should be part of the package of coronavirus recovery spending Britain's finance minister is expected to announce next week.

"We very much hope central government sees the light on this one," he added. Emma Harvey, director of the Green Finance Institute, said retrofitting work could be pushed forward by measures such as setting stamp duty rates - the tax paid by buyers when a home changes hands - lower for more energy-efficient homes.

Workers could also be offered loans for home retrofits that are paid back through "salary sacrifice" schemes with their employers, she said.

In the United States and Australia, some lenders provide long-term credit to finance more expensive home retrofits, with the loan passing on to new buyers - who reap the benefits of the improvements - if the home is sold, Ms Harvey said.

The British government also could consider issuing green bonds to fund retraining in retrofitting skills for workers left jobless by the coronavirus crisis, she said.

Mr Alker said the need to improve homes was clear - including to meet climate commitments - but revving up action remained a big task.

"It's a financing challenge, a behavioural challenge and a technical challenge," he said. That is "one reason we haven't cracked this nut yet", he added.


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