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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Wasteful homes 'risk eco-targets'
By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

Infra-red thermal image of Buckingham Palace (IRT Survey)
Even the UK's most famous household is not immune to heat loss

Key environmental targets are "undeliverable" unless households cut the amount of resources they consume, a government-commissioned report warns.

The UK's 21 million domestic dwellings are responsible for 27% of CO2 emissions, consume half of water supplies, and produce 8% of all waste.

Retrofitting existing technologies is the most cost-effective way to reduce households' impact, the study says.

The report comes from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC).

Taking stock

The efficiency of the current housing stock varies greatly because of a number of factors, including the age of the property, its size, and inhabitants' attitudes and habits.

Builder laying bricks (BBC)
Built before 1919: 4.5 million
1919 - 1944: 3.9 million
1945 - 1964: 4.4 million
1965 -1980: 4.7 million
After 1980: 3.7 million
(Source: English House Condition Survey 2003)

At least 75% of existing properties are still expected to be in use in 2050, the year by which the government hopes to have cut carbon emissions by 60% from 1990 levels.

That is why there is a need to focus on today's dwellings, rather than undertaking a widespread rebuilding programme, the report's authors say.

"You cannot possibly deliver a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by doing nothing to the existing housing stock," said Professor Anne Power, a member of the SDC and one of the report's authors.

She said there were promising signs within Whitehall that the efficiency message was getting through.

"In the last few months there has been a really big recognition, and almost every ministerial statement on what should happen next now refers to the existing housing stock," Professor Power said.

The report makes a range of recommendations, including:

  • Setting enforceable standards for carbon emissions, water consumption and the reduction of household waste
  • Encouraging the take-up of currently available technologies, such as insulation, improved heating systems and water/energy efficient equipment
  • Making VAT the same for refurbishment and new building, ending the current distortion that encourages homes to be demolished rather than refurbished
  • Better use of "smart meters" for water and energy to help owners make the link between greater efficiency and cutting bills
  • Encouraging local authorities to provide high quality doorstep collection services for recyclable materials

Graphic showing household energy consumption (BBC)
The authors say "significant savings are possible" through their recommendations, suggesting that the average home could halve its demand for energy, reduce water consumption by 30% and cut the amount of waste ending up in landfill sites by 50%.

While the report focuses on existing properties, it also acknowledges that demand for new housing continues to grow.

Tens of thousands of new homes are set to be built over the coming years, especially in the South East.

To prevent extra burdens on landfill sites and local water supplies, the authors call for any increase in CO2 emissions or water use by new housing to be offset by reducing it in existing homes in the same area by a similar amount.

Efficiency ratings

The government, in its recently published Energy Review, listed efficiency as one of the key areas for action. The review's recommendations include improving public awareness and encouraging the take-up of energy efficient measures.

From June 2007, people in England and Wales selling their home will have to obtain an "Energy Performance Certificate". It will grade a property's energy efficiency between A-G, similar to the system already used for electrical goods.

London skyline (BBC)
Domestic energy use accounts for 27% of the UK's CO2 emissions

The National Home Energy Rating (NHER) scheme - whose members include local authorities, housing corporations and energy suppliers - welcome this development.

"The provision of information to the consumer on the energy efficiency of their home is essential if we are to reduce the carbon emissions from housing," says Austin Baggett, head of the NHER.

"Not only that, but with increasing energy prices, consumers have a right to know how much their home is going to cost to run."

Price savings

The Energy Saving Trust estimates that the scheme will see a 300 reduction to the average household's energy bills.

"As energy prices have risen so astronomically in recent years and are unlikely to come down, knowing that you can halve the energy use in your home by doing some relatively simple things is quite appealing," says Professor Power.

"Energy saving ratings on fridges have had a very big impact on the sort of models people buy."

She says if a similar rating was applied to the UK's current housing stock, it would fail miserably.

"It would be long way below OK; the existing stock is very, very poor on energy efficiency. But if you insulate an old terraced home, you can dramatically improve its energy efficiency and get it way above OK."

The report was submitted to ministers earlier this year, but ahead of its official launch on Friday the SDC warns: "Savings in household energy use are absolutely necessary if we are to be on track to meet [the UK's] commitment to deliver a 60% cut in carbon emissions by 2050."

Ministers are currently reviewing the UK waste strategy and are expected to publish their findings later this year, while the Energy White Paper is set to be unveiled in early 2007.

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