We start 2024 looking at where the UK now stands in tackling climate change in light of the agreements at COP28 and the latest EU directives…
While the UK has withdrawn from commitments EU member states are subject to, the country continues to mirror a great many regulations that extend across the EU, especially with regard to the environment. More so now in the wake of the COP28 agreement on the transition from fossil fuels. So where does this leave the UK as we look forward from 2024?
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had laid out his “pragmatic” and “more proportionate” commitment to reaching UK net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Many called out the shift backwards of timelines, but now the world will be looking to the developed nations and their response to the COP28 agreement. The EU Commission has made it clear that it could work within the language of the agreement, but that it had hoped the language of the agreement would be more direct, especially the use of ‘transition from’ versus ‘a phasing out’ of fossil fuels.
We only need look at the revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) to see the scope of intent the EU is set to agree upon to gauge the challenge the UK must meet if it is to continue to lead the charge in delivering sustainable technology innovation and reduction of carbon.
Tackling climate change means setting out fresh commitments to decarbonise heat, the EPBD provisionally pledges to phase out the use of fossil fuels such as natural gas in heating by 2040. New amendments outline targets for reducing energy demand in buildings to help support wider EU legislation and environmental strategies that aim to scale up the use of low-carbon technologies and renewable power across the continent.
Alongside domestic commitments, the EPBD recognises the importance of addressing public sector and non-residential buildings which are seen as a major contributor of carbon to the atmosphere and, therefore key to tackling climate change. The revised EPBD therefore introduces a new zero-emission standard for non-residential new buildings. Expected to come into effect for publicly-owned buildings from the beginning of 2028 and extending to all other commercial property types by 2030, the changes would require all buildings in scope to have zero on-site emissions derived from fossil fuels, driving greater electrification.
New buildings will be required to be solar-ready, and able to fit rooftop solar thermal or photovoltaic installations as standard. This would be mirrored by new commitments for existing public and non-residential buildings to begin to install solar systems from 2027 – when it is ‘economically and technically feasible’ to do so. The building type and size though could affect when these new provisions would come into force.
On the topic of phasing out fossil fuels, the EU Commission has challenged member states to outline specific plans for cutting out the use of fossil fuels in heating and cooling solutions. This will include delivering a “complete phase-out” of boilers using fossil fuels (natural gas, LPG or oil) by 2040. “The revised directive introduces a clear legal basis for member states to set requirements for heat generators based on greenhouse gas emissions, the type of fuel used, or the minimum share of renewable energy used for heating,” stated the European Commission.
This revised, more aggressive timeline, if successfully passed, will no doubt form a benchmark for developed nations’ adoption of the COP28 agreement, and one that the incumbent UK government will be held to match or exceed in the coming 16 years. With the current UK Parliament set to be automatically dissolved in December 2024, a general election will need to be called, and the expectation is that tackling climate change will be one of the political battlegrounds. We must now wait to see if the EU stance garners greater support and impacts on prospective policies of the parties fighting for political control here in the UK. There is a palpable sense of a shift in thinking, aligning science with politics. Now it comes down to how finance, infrastructure and legislation will mandate necessary change and critical timelines as we look toward the committed 2050 deadline for net zero.
Under the current Government’s Net Zero strategy, despite similar carbon intensities for heating from either gas or electric, the latest regulations as outlined in the Heat & Buildings Strategy already deem gas systems alone to be too carbon polluting in commercial-scale buildings.
The Conservative government has previously pledged £6bn towards tackling climate change through the decarbonisation of heat, with an extra £1.5 billion of that money set to fund the facilitation of more installations of heat pumps, primarily for homes, but also small businesses. Under current consultation, the Future Homes and Buildings Standards, are also set to confirm the expectation for all new builds to be ‘zero carbon ready’ from 2025, reducing carbon emissions by at least 75% compared to 2013 standards.
To decarbonise domestic hot water (DHW) applications there are currently two core technology options, air source heat pumps (ASHP) or solar thermal. Although both can provide low or zero-carbon heat, neither can fully replace an existing water heating system, since commercial DHW systems must operate in excess of 60°C. However, both technologies can be used as a source of preheat to reduce energy use. Both will work equally well with after heat provided by either gas or direct electricity.
For buildings already on gas and that rely on large amounts of DHW – a large proportion of current commercial UK properties – we agree with the EU that solar preheat is the preferable option. Depending on the site and its energy consumption habits, solar thermal will typically provide around 30% of the hot water demand.
For new build properties, the expectation is for specification to default to a mixture of heat pumps and direct electric afterheat. This does however come currently with higher operational costs compared to equivalent gas-based systems. Commercial sites with existing gas should look at continuing to use it until policy sets out a timeline for green gas, such as hydrogen, or other renewables that can effectively replace current gas grid supplies. The UK government has stated it remains committed to a 2026 decision on Hydrogen, despite the recent announcement that the two hydrogen village test site projects would not advance this coming year. It does, however, continue to back blending hydrogen, in some cases, into the existing gas grid at a maximum volume of up to 20 per cent to cut direct emissions from burning gas for purposes such as heat.
While we must all recognise the importance of excluding fossil fuels from future commercial systems and advocate all-electric systems for new builds, it is important to understand the implicit costs and difficulties of retrofit and replacement of systems throughout the thousands of legacy commercial buildings that define the UK’s urban landscape. The hybrid approach is unavoidable for commercial projects and is the most sensible, practical, and cost-effective option. Whether all-electric or using blended gas after heat, commercial organisations can actively drive sustainability and retain control of operational expenditure for decades to come.