A new entrant to the UK Housing Sector

You would need to have been living under a rock to have missed the arrival of Legal & General on the UK Housing scene. From a position of no involvement in housing, L & G are now set to become one of its biggest players. How has this come about? Because of the housing crisis.

L & G (and others) see the current UK housing market as an opportunity. With a backdrop of strong demand, rising prices and an existing set of housebuilders which are unwilling or unable to ramp up production to meet the demand, this looks like a market that is ripe for disruption.

Instead of going down the normal route for a new entrant to the market, and playing the same game as the uincumbents, L & G are going for broke. They have invested in the largest factory in the UK, bought a Cross-Laminated Timber production line, and just in case you missed the point, are setting up a plant to manufacture CLT to guarantee their source of supply. They are doing nothing by halves.

The plan is to produce and supply 5,000 homes per year, or more from the factory, and to supply all of it using CLT. Thereby adding the same output to the industry as ten additional Barratt divisions, or a Redrow to the housing industry.

They don’t intend to compete directly with the housebuilders, because they are not going to be selling a comparable product at a comparable price. Mostly they will be developing to own and rent their own housing stock.

The interesting elements of this is because much it will remain in their ownership, it is open to investment. The U.K. Housing industry has not been open to investment since we decided that we had to own our own properties. Now that we have accepted that this is both unwise at some stages of our lives, and impossible for many people, there is a clear and undeniable need for long term home rental. A pension fund looks at long term home rental and sees something that it can invest in.

The housebuilders have shareholders too, but their focus is on paying out dividends each year rather than owning assets thta appreciate. Although housebuilders do won assets in the form of land, and it does appreciate, it doesn’t have nearly as much value when traded as it does when it has homes built on it. This makes the housebuilders a poor investment risk compared to rental property. Rental property accrues value and brings in an income every year, so there are two opportunities to make a profit, both in the short term and in the long term.

In Germany, a large proportion of housing supply has pension fund backing. In the UK it is almost non-existent due to our historical distaste for renting. This is all going to change and there is a lot of headroom to grow into for investors.

Another impact from the pension fund is that they care about the long term, their business model means that they have to. If you are paying out pensions to thousands of people every year, you have to be confident that the money will be there for them. This means that they care about what homes are built from, how well it will last, and how sustainable they are, because it matters a great deal to them and to the people who are paying into their pension funds. Who would invest in an oil company now? Or a coal mine? But housing in the UK, with strong demand set to continue into the foreseeable future? That looks like a safe bet.

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Five Ways to live sustainably.

How do we live sustainably? The holistic nature of the problem makes definition difficult, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a go at it. We must try and define the problem, as this is usually the first step towards finding a solution. 

Problem: We are not living within our environmental means, we are exceeding our emissions budget. To put it another way, we are in environmental debt. To continue to get into environmental debt just leaves another problem for our descendants to solve. If that weren’t bad enough, this environmental debt is already causing the climate to change in unpredictable ways, affecting our oceans and the biosphere dramatically. So not only will we leave a mess behind, but it will be a dangerous and unpredictable mess!

Solution: To stop eating into our environmental capital, our rainforests, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere. 

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it. But of course it isn’t that simple, mainly because we are either unaware of the cause of environmental debts or because our supposed happiness is predicated on a way of life that is inherently damaging, and we are unwilling to give up this way of life. Old habits die hard.

The change of habits and the introduction of cleaner systems does come at a price, change costs something, whether in time, materials or opportunity costs. But the cost of innovation is usually short-lived and then pricing tends to return to a level below where we started from. This is what pays for innovation and it doesn’t happen unless that promise of low costs is there.

Clean Energy: We need to replace our dirty grid with clean energy, which will take more than a generation as the lifespan of these systems is very long. But this has already started and there is widespread recognition that this needs to happen, so that battle is largely won. Sadly we have a government that doesn’t quite see this, but fortunately governments are temporary. Support a clean energy project near you today!

Get rid of the gas-guzzler: We need to stop using combustion for heating and transport. The Internal Combustion Engine has had its day, lets bury it with full honours and move on! Fortunately cars and domestic boilers have a relatively short lifespan and give us regular opportunities to change our habits. We will need to make a decision to take a risk by changing to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle when the opportunity offers, or to install a heat pump. We can’t rely on a push from government.

Buy Wisely: We need to stop importing goods from economies that aren’t moving in the direction of emission reductions, both to guarantee local jobs and to reduce the emissions of transporting goods half-way around the planet when we could easily make them on our doorstep. It would be nice if a carbon tax was added  to imports that highlighted their environmental costs, but we can add that cost in our mind when we think about pressing that button online. 

Waste: We need to reduce waste to a minimum, wasted materials, wasted energy, wasted heat. This is the most difficult one, as it is so closely related to behaviour. Persuading people that a walk to the shop is better for them and for the planet doesn’t sound difficult, but some people love their cars. There is an interesting shift in the use of health gadgetry to inform people about their health related behaviour that will help to achieve this. Insulating our homes will be a once in many generations cost. Consider whether you want your children to inherit an expensive home to inhabit, or a low energy home. If you only consider your own costs you won’t be motivated enough to spend the money.

Move into Town: We need to stop seeing a bucolic life in the country as the barometer of success. The country has nice views and fresh air, but it also has long travel distances to the doctors, the shops, the post office, the theatre and for every trip you have to make, the delivery van has to make one too. Move into town! Open a tea shop!

A lesson in Ministerial Defence or Defiance?

During this week The Rt Hon. A. Rudd Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change gave a strong demonstration of why she has been appointed to her post, namely her ability to defend an indefensible position. A necessary attribute for all Tory ministers in the current Cabinet, it would appear. If this demonstration is anything to go by, she has a long career ahead of her, hopefully not defending the indefensible, but promoting the new direction that the Government will take to enable the UK to meet its obligations to reduce the risk of climate change and meet the aspirations of the electorate.

You can watch the full story unfold here, I recommend having a glass of something strong by your side.

She was called to give evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee to explain why she had claimed the following two opposing views in quick succession. The first to the House of Commons, to say that the UK was going to meet its renewable energy targets by 2020, and the second where she wrote to her counterparts in the ministries for Transport,the Cabinet Office and The Treasury to ask for their help as under current policies the UK will not meet its renewable energy targets by 2020.

I can’t help wondering whether the leak was a political move to assign blame for this mess on the shoulders of colleagues in the Cabinet Office and Treasury whose decisions have left DECC with no room for manoeuvre after a series of swingeing cuts to renewable energy subsidies which have left the industry in disarray and investors running in the opposite direction. Among the suggestions for solving the problem was the suggestion that the UK could buy in renewable energy from other countries through interconnectors. When pressed on this matter, she said that this was not her preferred approach!

The explanations that were given to the Committee for the confusion were as follows:

– due to shortfalls in progress with renewable heat and transport, the result of current policies will be 11.5% of renewable energy by 2020 instead of 15%, a shortfall of 4.5% of all UK energy or a shortfall of 23.3% of the 15% target. Not a small amount of energy.

When asked whether the shortfall was a result of the recent cuts to subsidies and support for renewable energy, she responded:

– ‘we are going to meet the planned target for electricity, so we don’t think that cutting the subsidies will make any difference’

– ‘electricity is on target to provide 30% of electricity by 2020’

– ‘we don’t think that the answer is to provide more (renewable) electricity’

-‘ there is a greater role for electricity in transport’

Bizarrely the Committe didn’t ask the obvious question here, which is: if transport is to make a greater use of electricity to achieve its renewable energy targets, then wouldn’t it be sensible to make sure that there is greater capacity in the generation market to provide that renewable electricity? If we can provide more renewable electricity and (God forbid) exceed our electricity target to compensate for the lack of progress with heat and transport, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Sadly , no such question was forthcoming.

The Minister should be writing to the Dept of Transport to tell them that they are going to make use of more renewable electricity, that DECC is going to provide it, and to propose that they to work together to ensure that there are fleets of electric cars  and other vehicles ready to use this electricity by 2020.

There was also an opportunity to point out to the Minster that the cheapest way of meeting the heat targets is to reduce energy use, and some concerted action, like a replacement for the Green Deal would be a good start, but again, sadly, no such question was posed.

When asked how much of a fine the UK could face if it doesn’t meet its targets, the Minster robustly claimed not to know how much, and explained this away by saying ‘I am commited to making sure that the UK meets its targets’,  which is very reassuring, but at the same time a bit unbelieveable. The Minister was asked what policies she planned to introduce to meet the shortfall and responded with this gem:

-‘I have some ideas that I would like to take forward’ which are curently being evaluated under the Current Spending Review. I take this as Ministerial speak for , ‘I have made my point, I have given the options to the Treasury, they will say no, and I will be absolved of responsiblity’.

Expecting to produce new policies, implement them and to convert 4.5% of the UK’s energy demand to renewable sources by 2020 is simply unrealistic. It would be unlikely to happen even in a sympathetic Government, but particularly in the current fiscal environment where cuts to tax credits are off the table which will mean that cuts to absolutely everything else will be on the table, and given the recent behaviour of this Government there is zero chance that renewable energy targets are going to be a priority.

And in Other News...

There were a couple of unrelated gems in the session that will draw hollow laughter from many in the energy sector. When asked about investment plans for nuclear she stated:

-‘the  last thing the energy sector needs is surprises’

and when asked about the options available for EDF if the Chinese were to pull out of the Hinkley deal, she stated without blinking, that

-if the Chinese pull out, EDF will find another investor’

Cue hollow laughter by every economist.

The Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser – A Review

Edward Glaeser has penned this work on the benefits of the city from the perspective of the economist.  A useful and unusual perspective, the first major work on cities  from an economics perspective since Jane Jacobs penned ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’. 

The book is wide in scope and exhaustively annotated, and suitable for use as a textbook as well as being an interesting read. Every town planner and every city councillor should be forced to read it and not allowed to make a single plan or decision without  reading it.

Glaeser is not such a good writer as Jacobs, but he does create some pithy one-liners that could go on a city planners or mayors annual calendar.

The essential ingredient for the success of the modern city is the accessibility of talent. The basic premise of the book revolves around this statement.


Cities and Talent

Glaeser writes extensively on the subject of cities abilities to attract talent, including presenting many case studies of city growth and city failure around the globe over the last two centuries.

When presented with a series of trade-offs including the cost of housing, the ability to earn high wages and the potential to be close to good schools, families will make a decision to go to the city or suburb that gives them the best likelihood of success. Cities that cannot provide all three are likely to be limiting their ability to attract the greatest amount of talent.

He points out the particular problem of enabling and maintaining good schools in inner cities and although this is heavily US-centric there are relevant comparisons to be made in the UK, particularly in London where there are fewer good schools in inner city areas and many families move to the suburbs in search of good schools.

Glaeser points to many examples of cities that have used good education systems, particularly universities, such as London, Paris, Boston to keep their best and brightest people and to attract outsiders: ‘to thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively’ and ‘Because the essential characteristic of humanity is to learn from each other, cities make us more human’

He points out, rather romantically for an economist, that the advent of the connected society through cyberspace has in no way lessened the neccessity of face-to-face connections with talent. ‘connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal, a smile or a kiss’

The Sustainable City

He makes the point that were China and India to live the way the US does, and follow a path of abandoning the inner city for the ‘exurbs’, would raise the planets CO2 emissions by 139%. He suggests that there is some evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ density in their deign of places. Whether there is evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ quality of life in the same way, I am less sure. But his central point is well made, we can only offer convincing advice to developing countries if we are seen to be busy repairing the damage we have done ourselves already. The US has some way to go on this point.  ‘The only way the West can earn any moral authority on global warming is to first get its own house in order.’

Being an economist, and having dealt with the improvements that many cities have made to their transport systems through congestion charging, he points out that ‘Unless we charge people for the carbon they emit, they won’t emit less’.

He suggests that the exurbs are a temporary phenomenon and limited to some places, rather than having a general future. But he doesn’t have the evidence to back this up. ‘I suspect, that in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.’

Misguided Conservation

He makes a strong point about misguided conservation in places like California. (it could easily be London) where he points out that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) only assess the impact of develoment being built, and not the impact of it being built elsewhere instead; which is unfortunate because elsewhere in the US is a place like Houston where there is less development control than in California and where more houses are being built, and which are therefore cheaper and more attractive to workers and familes. But the result is a higher overall carbon footprint because Houston is uninhabitable without air-conditioning. And everyone drives everywhere. Conservation in California keeps California the way the rich Californians like it, but means that alternative places which are less suitable for sustainable living are used instead. In the UK, substitute Surrey for California and the result is largely the same.

He maintains that people who fight dense development in order to protect local low density life or green spaces  are simply moving the problem elsewhere, an elsewhere that is further from services and transport infrastructure that will mean more develoment on green field sites and more car travel.

‘The interests of people who oppose change are certainly comprehensible, but their interests usually don’t match the public interest.’

Policy should aim to encourage development in those parts of the country where it makes most sense, near to infrastructure and jobs, and not on creating areas of land like Green Belts that have little or no real environmental benefit but which results in more sprawl further away from economic centres and longer commutes for workers who cannot afford urban prices. ‘Urban living is sustainable sustainability,rural ecotowns are not.’ 

It seems to me that the difference between the UK and the US is that the results of long commutes is less obviously harmful in carbon terms as our cars are more efficient and public transport networks are good, but if you look at Charles Montgomery’s book on Happy Cities, you will see that the costs of long commutes include broken marriages and unhappy children because of the absence of one or both parents for most of the day. Environmental reasons are not the only reasons to be concerned by the need for long commutes.

On Urban Poverty

He takes a seemingly rather cold hearted look at urban poverty and points out that ‘Cities will always have poor people, and this is a sign of success, not failure, as cities should attract poor people who want to improve their lot’. Certianly the history of London and New York bears this out as places where waves of immigrants have come, found places to live near to the ports, worked in these cities, gradually become part of society and then moved from the enclaves where they started out together for mutual suport and eventually merged with society as a whole. There is a building in the East End of London that has been a mosque, a synagogue, and a church at different times as different cultures arrived and left.

‘Cities especially benefit from an influx of talent, because immigrants help urban areas play their crucial role of connecting countries.’

He deals well with the economic benifits of collecting talent in the same location, both for cultural movements and technical innovation. The problem is when cities create areas of poor people who will always be poor, as has happened in many areas of the UK where social housing has been built in large clusters. Sometimes this has resulted in creating communities where unemployment and benefit dependency has become a way of life and difficult to disrupt. He pours scorn on efforts in many US cities where attempts at regeneration have focussed on building infrastructure and housing in failing places where neither were needed, and suggests that a better use of money would have been to give it to the disadvanteged and allowed them to move to wherever they would prefer to live. A chilling piece of evidence that he provides is that poorer children displaced from New Orleans have demonstrated improvements in school results in the communities they have moved to. Sometimes, he suggests, new buildings are not what is needed.

On Management

‘The more centralised a nations government, the larger its capital city, because people are attracted to power as ants are to picnics’

‘Much of the world suffers under awful governments, and that provides an edge for those cities that are administered well’ He doesn’t examine the different types of civic government that have worked well, but its interesting that the examples he cites tend to be places where a strong individual took control, often for a sustained period. The same can be said of the failures.

‘..among cities, failure seem similar, while success seem unique’

Glaeser identifies a common problem of political and cultural attitudes to city life, which has often found its way into city management in the past, and still does today. Political animals who must attract votes from the wider community don’t always understand the particular needs of the cities under their control, or even how to ensure that they are managed properly. The conflict between what is good for the country, and what is good for the city is dealt with through a number of case studies. His comments about the negative impacts of taxation could have been written about the UK.

‘Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas. Cities have managed to survive despite these advantages because they have so much to offer.’

When it comes to managing a city budget, he is unequivocal:

‘As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics.‘ These are Safety, Education & Transport.

His case study on Singapore is very interesting as it demonstrates how a city-state can function without a rural hinterland. ‘Singapore’s success illustrates the irrelevance of acreage’. Again, he makes the point, as Jane Jacobs did, that cities are really the economic engines of a modern society, and as they need resources it doesn’t appear to affect their success or failure where those resoures come from. Provided the city can attract and keep talent, and maintain a good economic strength, it can afford to buy the resources that it needs. He fails to point out that the resources also come with a carbon footprint and outsourcing production of resources, such as food, from long distances, has the same effect on CO2 emissions as curtailing developent within its boundaries.

END

If you are interested in urban design, sustainability, town and city planning, then this book should be on a shelf close to your desk, alongside the works of Jane Jacobs and Henry Montgomery.

Announcement on Zero Carbon Homes in the Queens Speech

Here is the text of the background document to today’s announcement on zero-carbon Homes.

New homes built to a zero carbon standard

The Government is committed to implementing a zero carbon standard for
new homes from 2016. But it is not always technically feasible or cost
effective for house builders to mitigate all emissions on-site.

The Government would set a minimum energy performance standard through
the building regulations. The remainder of the zero carbon target can be met
through cost effective off-site carbon abatement measures – known as
‘allowable solutions’. These provide an optional, cost-effective and flexible
means for house builders to meet the zero carbon homes standard, as an

alternative to increased on-site energy efficiency measures or renewable
energy (such as solar panels). Small sites, which are most commonly
developed by small scale house builders, will be exempt. The definition of a
small site will be consulted on shortly, and set out in regulation.

The Zero Carbon Home standard will be set at Level 5 of the Code for
Sustainable Homes, but the legislation will allow developers to build to Level 4
as long as they offset through the allowable solutions scheme to achieve
Code 5.

(This is a strange piece of text,  the Coalition is using Code Levels to explain an energy compliance scheme. The 2016 standard has almost nothing to do with Code Level 5 and Code Level 4 has very little to do with Building Regulations 2014. Its as though the Code was only an energy standard, and all the other elements didn’t matter so much)

Energy efficiency requirements for homes are set in the Building Regulations
2010 and are made under powers in the Building Act 1984. But there are
insufficient powers in the Building Act to introduce off-site allowable solutions,
so the Government will now bring forward enabling powers for this.

 

I am assuming that this exemption applies to London, and that anything built within the London Plan zone will continue to meet London Plan requirements irrespective of scale.

The question of what represents ‘small’ is going to be interesting. How small is small?

EcoBuild 2013 – Review

I spent two days at EcoBuild this year, and had a very positive experience. I have heard a few complaints that the exhibition wasn’t as impressive as other years, which may have been true, but I don’t go to look at exhibition stands. I look at large expensive exhibition stands at EcoBuild and other trade fairs and generally think that the money could have been better spent. Bah humbug.

Instead of wearing out my feet traversing the several football fields that is the show, I arranged to meet people. Lots of people. Manufacturers, developers, go-betweens, distributors, contractors and researchers, and managed to fit them all in, and had good meetings with them all. I drank a LOT of coffee in the central space, in fact I spent two thirds of the time there rather than in the halls. For me the great thing about EcoBuild has always been the quality of the people who attend it. There is a huge group of serious professionals, clients and manufacturers who are interested in making this world a more sustainable place, and come to EcoBuild to learn about how to do that and to network with other like-minded people that they want to work with. Manufacturers and suppliers can come and go, but the people will remain, and so long as they do, so shall I.

Things that caught my eye this year? A LED bulb in the innovation zone that uses AC power and doesn’t need to transform AC to DC, so its more efficient and last longer, and can provide mood lighting. Vacuum Insulated Panels from Kingspan and others, can’t we make this futuristic product work and bring the costs down?I liked the electric bike test track, that’s a good way of using a bit of spare space, why not have some electric cars and scooters as well? UKTI did a great speed dating service for the show, my colleagues tell me the Life cycle assessment seminars were very good, UKGBC launched the PinPoint website, so as a Pinpoint champion, I am championing it!

I’m already planning 2014 and its going to take me days to get through the to-do list I have accumulated over the last week, so its been a good EcoBuild for me.

Is Sustainability an important part of a design brand?

Peter Murray, chairman of the NLA came to HTA to talk to us this week about communications for architects. It was a very interesting talk with some home truths about how architects often get communications very wrong, and equally how successful they can be when they get it right. He talked a lot of sense about presentation techniques, which are important for any professional, and, most importantly, how to avoid ‘death by powerpoint’.

But I was a little taken aback when, during a discussion about branding for designers he said that it no longer made sense for consultancies to talk about sustainability being part of their brand, as it ‘ought to be part of every companies identity by now’. I have been thinking about this since and I think that he is partly right and partly wrong. He ought to be right because sustainability ought to be part of how people work in construction by now, we certainly have been talking about it for long enough. But are we really doing it? Or just talking about it.

I don’t think that we are doing sustainability yet. We are still routinely designing and building buildings that fall very far short of the standards that we know about. Certainly I cannot think of a single development where the client talks about wanting to design sustainable buildings and places, but instead the discussion is about how to meet the standards that have been enforced on the development from outside by local authorities or Government can be met. The general mood in the housing industry, still reeling from the credit crunch, is that sustainability can wait until we can afford it. So how can we claim to be sustainable? The fact that we don’t appear to be able to afford to build more sustainably at the moment should be a source of regret, and not something that we should accept lightly.

I think that designers need to think about sustainability more, and what it means to us both as individuals and practices, and maybe then we can deliver it.  We must not fool ourselves by thinking that by building the cheapest solution to solve a financial problem while ignoring the ever-growing environmental one is being sustainable.

The Sustainability Implications of the NPPF

Here is my summary of the NPPF for sustainability practitioners. I am highlighting the elements that strike me as being particularly relevant. This is no substitute for reading the document yourself!

Overall the document strikes me as being better than the draft but not as good as it could have been from a sustainability perspective. While the document is ostensibly about Sustainable Development, it doesn’t really add anything to the discussion about what that actually means in practice. Many concepts are mentioned but not defined. Garden Cities are a good example. There is a rather woolly reference to the ‘principles of Garden Cities’

There are many positives, the recognition that town centres need to be protected and expanded, that employment land shouldn’t be protected from development when there is no reasonable expectation of the land being used for employment uses, encouragement for low carbon development. But in all cases the question ‘what does this really mean in practice’ has to be answered.

 

The National Planning Policy Framework contains a presumption in favour of sustainable development: The entire document aims to set out what sustainable development means in the UK. It states “to achieve sustainable development, economic, social and environmental gains should be sought jointly and simultaneously through the planning system”. This includes development that ‘supports the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate’, ‘encourages the use of renewable resources’ and includes ‘moving from a net loss of bio-diversity to achieving net gains for nature’.

The NPPF encourages the use of brownfield land, it supports the protection of town centres from urban sprawl, and recognises that residential development can play a part in maintaining their vitality.

It promotes sustainable transport, ‘solutions which support reductions in greenhouse gas emission and reduce congestion’. It encourages ‘sustainable transport modes’ but refrains from defining them.

It states that ‘..developments should be located and designed to give priority to pedestrian and cycle movements and have access to high quality public transport systems’

Empty homes should be identified and brought back into use, and where large scale development is appropriate it should follow the principles of Garden Cities. These principles are not defined, nor is any account taken of the particular circumstances that led to the development of the Garden Cities in the UK.

Good design is given high importance in the document including supporting buildings or infrastructure which promote high levels of sustainability.

Place-making is supported including places where there are ‘opportunities for meetings between members of the community who might otherwise not come into contact with each other’. The document then helpfully lists places such as pubs and places of worship where this might happen!

Local authorities are asked to adopt proactive strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change, including supporting energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings, setting local requirements to be consistent with the zero carbon buildings strategy. The NPPF seeks strategies that promote renewable energy, maximise renewable energy development, identify areas suitable for renewable energy, support community-led initiatives, and identify opportunities for renewable or low carbon energy supply systems.

Local plans should include policies to deliver: climate change mitigation and adaptation, conservation and enhancement of the natural and historic environment including landscape.

Neighbourhood plans give communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and deliver the sustainable development that they need.

The flood risk is assessed as per old PPS 25 and all development sites less than 1 ha are exempt. The NPPF states that SUDs Approving Body (SAB) has to approve the drainage system plans for new development. However the Schedule 3 at the Floods and Water Management Act 2010  that introduces SAB has not been formally introduced.

Zero Carbon Hub Annual Conference 2012

Today was the annual Zero Carbon Hub conference to review the progress of the Zero Carbon agenda. There were a few significant highlights from the speakers and the Q&A afterwards:
– there was a lot of mutual backslapping regarding the progress to date, Paul King commented that we are about half-way along the path from 2007 when the policy was introduced by Yvette Cooper, to 2016 when the policy becomes reality.
– many speakers bemoaned the fact that SAP is not fit for purpose, and the fact that it is owned by DECC, managed by the BRE on behalf of DCLG is at the heart of the problem. One representative of a major house builder declared (privately)that they would be happy to fund its development along with others, if the result was a transparent, reliable and useable system of compliance assessment. What is the point of doing R&D to gain 5% of benefits to find that this is wiped out by the next update to SAP?, he asked, quite reasonably.
– there was welcome news from the NHBC that owners of low carbon homes are satisfied with them and there is research to back this up.
– there was welcome news from Lloyds Bank that there is an emerging Green Mortgage market. There is also evidence that low carbon homes may command a premium because fuel bills are lower than for existing homes and other newbuild homes. As newbuild performance increases and the gap in running costs opens up between existing and new homes, there is an expectation that the market for new homes will grow.
– there was an explanation of the proposed changes to Building Regs from DCLG that didn’t leave me any the wiser, so I’ll just have to read the consultation.
– there was a speech from Ray Morgan that managed to annoy just about the entire room, doing what Ricky Gervais did for the Golden Globes, and Paul King invited him back to chair next year.
Next year can we have the conference somewhere with daylight? Not at the bottom of a deep cave in Kings Cross.

The God Species by Mark Lynas

Mark lynas’ book ‘The God Species’ is one of a number of recent books that offer planet-scale strategies for a sustainable future. See Stern’s ‘Blueprint for a Safer Planet’ for a good example. Lynas’ book is a welcome addition to the canon, not because I agree with it all, but because it is sure to spark debate about these strategies and debate is much needed.

I enjoyed the strategic reach of the book; he doesn’t get into much detail on any strategy but concentrates on setting out the problems and highlights some solutions. He doesn’t suggest that he has all the answers, but instead says that identifying the problem and agreeing to solve it is the first major step that we need to take.

The book looks at the large scale impact of human activity and suggests that there are planetary boundaries that we should not cross. The concept of ‘Planetary Boundaries’ was developed here and posits that there are nine limits or boundaries that we must stay within if we are to maintain the biosphere as it is, and guarantee a safe future for mankind. Some of these, such as the maximum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (350ppm) are familiar. Some others, such as the amount of nitrogen in the planetary system, are not widely debated or understood. There is a table of the boundaries and our current position in relation to them here

Lynas argues persuasively that because human impacts are already global and cannot be undone, we should accept responsibility for them and act to actively manage them. This gives rise to the title, and suggests, unhelpfully in my opinion, that we should stop acting like people and act like gods instead. (I disagree here, we need to be more humble as a species, not more arrogant)

Lynas is critical of some members of the environmental movement, saying that they focus too much on Utopian ideals and not enough on practical solutions. He is prepared to sacrifice some of the sacred cows of environmentalism, such as opposition to nuclear power, limiting growth, the use of Genetically Modified Organisms and reducing consumption, and suggests that the way to environmental success is to direct activity towards management of these activities through technical ingenuity rather than confronting them head-on.

He argues persuasively for fast breeder reactors and thorium fuels, even for Genetically Modified Organisms, but I was unconvinced by his argument that ‘...our job as modern, knowledgeable humans is to use all the tools at our disposal to avoid trespassing over these boundaries-at the same time as we must seek to allow the growth in human prosperity and numbers to continue for the foreseeable future

It seems contradictory to me that we would decide to behave like gods to manage our food supply, energy supply and our land but decide to step back from population, behaviour and growth. He even contradicts himself by suggesting that we need to change our lifestyles in terms of the amount of water that we use, and that this should be privatized and metered to restrict supply. I agree that behavior and aspirations are among the more difficult issues to tackle, but what are ‘gods’ for if not to tackle the difficult issues?

Underlying the concept of the book is the optimistic belief that we humans are capable of understanding Nature, redesigning our impacts to manage away the damage that we have done and continue to do, and to develop our role as benign managers of Nature. This is an appealing prospect, but there is little evidence presented of our ability to do so. Lynas uses the example of our success in dealing with ozone production as evidence of our ability to act as planetary managers. This is dubious; the production of a relatively small amount of a relatively small number of pollutants by a relatively small number of companies was fairly easy to change and doesn’t really tell us anything about dealing with other planet-scale problems. What the ozone layer problem does teach us is that even small amounts of tinkering with the biosphere can have unexpected and potentially disastrous consequences, it was more luck than design that we managed to find this problem and solve it before it became a serious problem.

Lynas then goes on to suggest that further tinkering with the biosphere may be necessary to avoid climate change impacts, as though science has passed some technical boundary and the impact of such tinkering can now be quantified and anticipated in virtual laboratories. This seems like hubris to me, and postulates a level of comptence for our species that we are not able to match.  I don’t deny that we may be able to at some time in our future, but that future seems distant to me. There are small pockets of the world where we have managed our impacts by creating reservations for protected areas and species. But the level of management in these reservations is extremely crude and doesn’t always work, and we cannot turn the planet into one giant reserve. Lynas makes an ambitious claim on behalf of humanity, that we are capable of managing our future, but cannot back it up.

I welcome this book, its scope is ambitious, and the questions he asks are some of the most important questions for our species. What are the safe limits to our impacts on this planet, and what must we do to manage our impacts to stay within those limits? Lynas cannot answer them all, no-one can. But he should be congratulated for asking them, and in popularising the concept of Planetary Boundaries he does us all a valuable service.