Improving energy efficiency of UK housing is crucial in the fight against climate change and soaring fuel prices

Stew Horne, Head of Policy at Energy Saving Trust, outlines the essential steps policymakers must prioritise for real energy security, from retrofitting to committing to long-term investment in efficiency.  

The release of the British Energy Security Strategy in April this year brought a welcome commitment to increase the generation of renewable energy from solar and wind.  However, UK buildings currently account for around a quarter of UK carbon emissions.

Two thirds of homes are below an adequate level of energy efficiency and British homes are losing heat up to three times faster than our European counterparts. With the UK currently not on track to meet its carbon reduction targets, improving the energy efficiency of homes can’t wait.

turned on clear glass light bulb

The ongoing energy crisis, which has seen fuel prices skyrocket, is likely to put more people at risk of fuel poverty. When considered alongside the effects of the cost-of-living crisis, improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s cold and leaky housing stock is one of the clearest solutions to the energy challenges we face.

To ensure the UK reaches its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as many homes as possible should achieve an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of ‘C’ or above. However, 16 million homes currently fall within band ‘D’ or lower in England alone. In order to help homeowners reach this target, the UK Government needs to ensure there are suitable and accessible finance options available for households to retrofit their homes, through measures such as loft insulation and double glazing.

Emerging reports in June of Government plans to insulate more homes across the UK via the expansion of the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme are welcomed. ECO has been an important and successful energy efficiency programme and increasing its remit would be a positive step. The details of how Government do this, including where the additional funding will come from, will be crucial.

Another vital element of the scaling up of home energy efficiency improvements will be the introduction of an independent and impartial advice service to support households across England. A key barrier to the retrofit process is working out which measures should be installed and at what time, which can be complex and confusing. Consistent, comprehensive, independent and tailored advice available to all households, would play a key role in mitigating this.  

top-view photography of houses at daytime

The ambition of the recent Heat and Buildings Strategy, which aims to phase out fossil fuels for heating and outlines the provision of support for people transitioning to low carbon heating solutions, such as heat pumps, was also a welcome step towards the decarbonisation of UK homes. However, it is vital that government continues to build on this momentum by providing further specifics on how this ambition is going to be delivered and putting energy efficiency at the centre of any plan.

In addition to reducing emissions and energy bills, investment in energy efficiency will provide job opportunities and enable businesses to establish themselves as market leaders in this important sector within the UK. Retrofitting the UK’s 30 million buildings to high energy efficiency standards by 2030 would create 190,000 new jobs in the retrofit economy in the process. To realise this major potential, we need long-term government investment in a national programme of energy efficiency and low carbon domestic heating to underpin the market, not least with the continuation of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme.

It’s also important that, as well as private housing, retrofitting solutions are considered within social housing upgrade projects. If improvements to decarbonise homes are limited to those able to finance the work themselves – through savings or conventional borrowing – then the transition to net zero will worsen, rather than resolve, current inequalities. This highlights questions of fairness: who pays for the work, how are costs distributed and how can we ensure that everyone benefits?

man in green crew neck t-shirt holding smoking pipe

These issues underline Energy Saving Trust’s longstanding call for housing to be classed as national infrastructure, rather than a collection of private assets. This would help justify more support for households, ensure stronger quality standards (poorly installed measures will not deliver the required carbon or energy bill savings) and promote better distribution of costs and benefits.

Ensuring that we decarbonise and increase the energy efficiency of the UK’s housing stock is vital if we are to deliver affordable energy costs for homeowners and reach our net zero targets. While heat networks and heat pumps will be part of the solution, an ambitious and long-term plan to retrofit UK homes must be developed and put into place soon to significantly cut demand for gas to heat our homes and enable a fair transition to a net zero society for all.

Images: Christian Dubovan, Tom Rumble, Greg Rosenke

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