2050 seems like a long way off. It will be the year I celebrate my 80th birthday if I’m lucky enough to make it that far. Thirty years is a generation and a bit. 2050 is still a year that invokes images of sleek spacesuits and sentient computers, even though 2001 was nearly two decades ago and it really wasn’t like that.
2050 is also the year when the UK has pledged to be carbon neutral as an economy. And at that point it suddenly doesn’t feel quite as far away as it did at first.
Many of the things that we need to do differently to hit that (for some, ambitious, for others, complacent) target are involving infrastructure that revolves around pretty long replacement cycles. The average age of a car in the UK is 8 years old (and that’s been creeping up). A gas-powered boiler for domestic use will have a lifetime of 10-15 years. The vast majority of homes in the UK are over 40 years old, with a very significant proportion over 100 (those Victorians built stuff to last).
When we come to look at what makes up the use of energy in homes, nearly 80% of our energy consumption across the EU (and the UK… how it pains me to have to write that separately) comes from heating space and water.
Announcements this week from the government have suggested that new homes will no longer be installed with gas boilers from 2023. That’s a very aggressive target. And here’s the rub – even meeting current insulation standards, simply replacing gas with alternative energy would be likely to see significant increases in energy cost for consumers. If one is in the position of providing homes to people already on low incomes, making choices that significantly increase their costs is very hard.
Approaches to low energy consumption homes like Passivhaus however, aren’t simply about replacing a gas boiler with a renewable energy source for heating. They are about totally rethinking not only how we build and design homes, but also how we use them. If you are used to whacking up a radiator when you are cold, and turning it down again when you are too hot (or, even worse, opening a window), then changing the heat source in a home is just the beginning of the challenge.
Like any complex change programme, this is going to involve a multi-disciplinary team of experts with widely ranging skills and experience. Getting them to collaborate with one another will be the next challenge, and getting them to have end users actively involved in the process probably the biggest challenge of all.
Whilst user-centric design might be increasingly commonplace in the world of digital services, anyone who has tried to decipher the manual for the average, bog-standard central heating control system will know that it hasn’t touched the world of home systems. Yes, Nest and Hive, but they are superficial layers plastered over old technologies that don’t play with one another very well. Nest and Hive aren’t the answer to carbon neutral, by a long shot.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that if carbon neutral is the aim by 2050, and we assume that at least some things continue to emit carbon, then it’s not just about striving for net-neutral. Many, many industries will need to become net carbon sinks, somehow consuming carbon emissions from the atmosphere and doing something useful with them.
Maybe, when it comes to houses, we should start thinking about putting them all into trees…