The environment may have slipped down the political agenda in recent months, displaced by news about funding cuts and revolution in the Arab world, however the Government must continue to prioritise climate change if it is to achieve its target of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.

An important part of reaching this target will come from addressing the energy use in our homes which currently accounts for around 25% of the UK’s total annual carbon footprint.

The Government’s Energy Bill 2011 introduces a new “Green Deal” which is aimed at significantly improving the energy efficiency of British homes. The idea of the Green Deal is that loans will be offered to people to make their homes more energy efficient, which they will then pay back over 25 years through additional charges to their energy bills. Under this system, it is planned that the savings on bills will overcome the additional cost.

Another measure aimed at improving efficiency is the plan to install Smart Meters in all homes by 2020. The largest single use of energy in the home is in the heating of room spaces, which makes up around half of the total. The meters would potentially reduce energy wastage in this area by making consumers more aware of how much gas and electricity they are using. Since three quarters of the homes that will exist in 2050 have already been built, initiatives like this that are aimed at making existing homes more energy efficient must now be a priority.

Residents of Birmingham may like to know that there is an award winning property in Balsall Heath in Birmingham which has been adapted to produce at least as much energy as it consumes. There are also other Old Home Super Home projects you can see in Birmingham.

Another area of focus must be in ensuring that newly built homes are energy efficient. In order to achieve this, the Government has retained the previous Labour Government’s commitment to ensuring that all new homes built after 2016 will be zero carbon, a target which would put the UK at the forefront of world progress in this area.

 But what does ‘zero carbon’ actually mean? In theory it means that the property consumes no carbon overall through running costs, although this doesn’t take in account the “embodied” energy (which is that used in construction, typically a very energy-hungry process).

The Government has given responsibility for achieving the zero carbon target to the Zero Carbon Hub which promotes the Code for Sustainable Homes, a system for assessing properties on their energy efficiency. Level 6 in the Code recommends the following key features for new homes:

  • Excellent levels of insulation

  • Minimal thermal bridges

  • Advanced windows

  • Excellent levels of airtightness.

  • Effective orientation for winter solar gains and summer cooling

  • Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery and very efficient in its use of electricity

  • Space and water heating normally from a large solar heating system supplemented by a low-powered gas, oil or LPG fired condensing boiler

  • Lighting by high-efficiency fluorescent lamps

  • Electrical appliances normally A+ rated or better

  • Sufficient on-site electricity generation from renewables to offset the electricity used for lighting, appliances and ventilation

  • A guidebook to explain to users how/why the building differs from normal

Despite this progress, Grant Shapps, Minister for Housing, has recently been accused of caving in to pressure from the house builders by relaxing the criteria for ‘zero carbon’, casting doubt on the Coalition’s claim last year to be the ‘greenest Government ever’. Hidden away in an appendix to the March budget was an announcement that carbon emissions produced by cooking and electrical appliances such as televisions were to be excluded from the definition, even though these account for between one third and half of a home’s total emissions.

Although the definition of zero carbon has been compromised by government recently, there remains a financial incentive for consumers to live in an energy efficient home, and a recent article in the Telegraph explains how simple steps can cut hundreds of pounds off annual fuel bills.

Looking further into the future, it surely makes sense for the country to invest in low energy technologies within our homes as the pressures on dwindling natural resources such as oil become more intense and their price inevitably increases.

See more about FoE’s work on the energy bill here.