26 Oct 2021

Reducing carbon emissions in Northern Ireland’s homes

The race to net-zero emissions has fired people’s minds and hit the headlines in recent weeks. With new announcements from the UK government and with COP26 taking place in Scotland, net-zero has found a welcome place at the centre of public conversations.

On the upside, UK targets to date to reduce emissions have been met – greenhouse gases have reduced by around 45 per cent from 1990 levels. However, there is a big question mark over whether future targets can be met.

And there are specific concerns around housing, where the Climate Change Committee has described the progress in tackling decarbonisation of buildings as “very poor”. One of the latest initiatives is a long-awaited heat and buildings strategy for England and Wales. It is a welcome and much needed development, albeit one that needs to go further if we are to achieve our goals.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland does not have such a strategy. More broadly, we are still playing catch up – progress was delayed by the collapse of the NI Executive, which serves to make the job harder to get on track.

So what progress is taking place in Northern Ireland? There are two climate change bills moving through the Assembly, both of which set targets and carbon budgets to bring down emissions. However, one is the NI Executive bill and the other is a private member’s bill with more ambitious targets. It is important that these two bills are reconciled in some way, and we get a target into law that will help to drive the agenda.

We are also moving to enhance building regulations. The law changed last year to require all new public buildings, including all new social housing, to be built as nearly-zero energy buildings (nZEB). While the technical guidance is not yet in place to advise what constitutes nZEB, the Department of Finance is now consulting on an uplift to the relevant building regulations which is welcome.

There is other activity – for example the revitalisation of the Housing Executive which is central to unlocking the funds needed to reach net-zero for its 84,000 homes. And there is a housing supply strategy expected at the start of the November from the Department for Communities, which primarily examines constraints on supply but also considers net-zero issues.

There is other collaborative sector-led work too – CIH Northern Ireland is leading an initiative together with Aico and with NIFHA and Supporting Communities to scope out how the sector can play its part to help push this conversation along and promote resident involvement.

But what are the areas where we need to go further?

  • Funding. The investment requirement for net-zero is considerable. We need a new, specific fund for the retrofit of social housing in Northern Ireland. Existing funding streams also need to be maximised and unlocked – streams from the UK, from the EU where it is still open to us, and local ones too. And private finance will need to be mobilised across all housing tenures.
  • People. There is an ongoing need for a public conversation around net-zero, with clear and consistent messaging. Polling in the UK shows people are supportive of the need to lower emissions, but support starts to fall once you start talking about individual impacts like replacing boilers. So people must be reassured that we are on a journey together as we all embrace and learn to use different technology, just as society has done many times in the past. That doesn’t mean there won’t be difficult conversations and decisions.
  • Government. We need policy certainty, not least to encourage private investment and bring down future costs of achieving net-zero. We need a clear, long-term strategies. Particularly, a heat and buildings strategy in Northern Ireland.
  • Skills and technology. Finally, the right technological solutions are required to support the work in the housing sector. And the right skills are needed in the supply chain. There’s a clear role here for the education sector and professional bodies too.
Written by Justin Cartwright

Justin Cartwright is the national director of CIH Northern Ireland.