The Burning Issue: How can the planning system impact bid to hit net-zero target?

2021 is a make-or-break year for climate action, with the window to prevent the worst impacts of climate change closing rapidly on us.

With the COP26 summit less than five months away, efforts towards implementing commitments that were promised at the Paris Agreement are being hastily made to provide us with the best chance of tackling these issues before it’s too late. This is the chance the UK has to demonstrate commitment to decarbonising our economy and to showcase the ambitious plans the UK has for collaborating on decarbonisation projects.

‘COP’ stands for Conference of Parties and the ‘26’ refers to this being the 26th meeting. This global event is being held in Glasgow this year, where the United Nations meet to discuss how countries are planning to tackle climate change. One of the most crucial focuses towards future growth has been decarbonising. This societal obligation and commercial expectation is the key path to change and growth locally and globally.

The aim of the Paris Agreement in 2015 was to allow 196 Governments to agree to work together on preventing the world’s temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Reports from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) show a 40% chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius in one of the next five years.

There is also a 90% chance of at least one of the years between 2021-2025 reaching the warmest on record. Facts such as these express the importance of 2021 and the COP26 to implementing the Framework to reduce such temperatures.

So far, 4,500 non-state actors from across the global economy have committed to halving emissions by 2030 as a result of the ‘Race to Net Zero’ campaign backed by the United Nations a year ago. Astonishing figures have been revealed a year beyond the launch, demonstrating positive results, for example, a tenfold increase in small and medium sized enterprises and major new joiners such as Google, Apple, Pfizer and Microsoft.

Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC said:

“At COP26 the world must lay the ground for a decade of transformational climate action. What the Race to Zero has shown - in just one year - is that there is unprecedented momentum among non-state actors to achieve that goal and deliver the promise of the Paris Agreement as rapidly as possible.”

The Planning System has a crucial role to play in delivering the effective strategies towards action on climate change. Without the Planning System, there would be no regulation to the way the built environment is constructed today, nor would there be renewable energy projects. Additionally, it is also the only mechanism through which the spatial aspects of decarbonisation and climate adaptation can be addressed.

The Government’s advisory Climate Change Committee has raised concerns on the new Planning Bill over insufficient sustainability tests and a lack of general guidance for Councils looking to approve developments. The Bill must ensure developments are assessed against efforts towards net zero by 2050, however, this is not being done due to the Bill missing the “powerful opportunity” to ensure such developments are compliant. If this is not done, no matter the size or scale of the project, net zero will not be met.

In order to manage the way policy is set for meeting the target for Net Zero, the RTPI have welcomed the proposal for a 15-year pathway to decarbonise the UK’s housing stock and due to the UK having one of the oldest and least efficient housing stocks in Europe, this is challenging. The National Deal for Net Zero homes is included as one of several recommendations put forward in the report ‘Ambition 2030: A Partnership for Growth.’ By setting out a National Prosperity Plan, the number of homes can be boosted along with their living standards. The policy is called ‘decarbonising energy demand to deliver net zero’. Significant efforts have been put into decarbonising energy generation that other areas have slipped, such as emissions from buildings have remained relatively static since 2014.

Lessons have been learned from previous policy approaches, which have previously failed, allowing for a greater chance of successfully achieving the necessary goals for tackling climate change. For example, it is well known customers’ control and lack of appetite for change is one of the largest barriers. Businesses need to understand the reasons for this and address them accordingly to overcome this barrier. Government support will be required through creating partnerships with industries to deliver the investment to ultimately provide the right products at affordable prices.

The National Deal on Net Zero homes will need to be tailored to allow for different localities to use such approaches. For example, the roll out of Local Area Energy Plans; LEAPs will be a major part of this local delivery. The Government will work with local policy-makers to deliver the policy and regulatory framework for Local Authorities to deliver effectively. This will play a central role in delivering net zero homes more broadly.

As delivery of this is guaranteed to take time, there are actions which can be implemented immediately and three of these include:

  1. Modernise EPCs – These need to be replaced with a more accurate solution.

  2. Explore creation of Green Bond Homes – This bond would provide funding upfront for homes to be retrofitted in return for a long-term commitment to a share of these benefits.

  3. Retrofitting all social homes with energy efficiency measures by 2030 – Government should commit to retrofitting all council-owned homes by 2027 and all social homes to meet EPC band C by 2030.

Millions of homes that have been built, private and social, will need retrofitting because previously the planning system did not insist it was essential to equip them with ventilation to cope with heatwaves and warmed with low carbon heating, according to Lord Deben.

This has now been made apparent with an overwhelming figure being released in June this year by the Climate Change Committee, that 570,000 homes have been built over the years which would be likely to overheat in hot summers.

There are still opportunities to integrate adaption into major policies within UK planning and design, such as a review of the National Planning Policy Framework, and reviews of Homes England requirements and Building Regulations.

It is going to need the collaborative effort and willingness of planners, design teams, clients, product manufacturers and contractors to achieve net zero carbon by 2030, however, action is more crucial now than ever.