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The Government is committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. You doubtless already know this. Everyone does. It’s an inescapable fact of public life these days. We need to reach net zero to have any hope of limiting global temperature rises, and every department of the state is bent on achieving this.

So much discussion following COP has been about new policies and taxes. But change is already afoot to achieve these goals, right under the Government’s noses, says Chris Brierley, Head of Communications, Active Building Centre.

Building for the future

By this point it should be widely known that around 40% of carbon emissions come from buildings, with much of that coming from heating. The automatic answer to how construction can help reach net zero is to think of housing.

However, a significant proportion of buildings are non-residential, and a large amount of that – our schools, prisons and hospitals, as well as aircraft hangars, warehouses and civil service offices – is owned and operated by the Government. So there’s a huge opportunity for the Government to make a dent in carbon emissions, simply by getting its own house in order.

To reach net zero, the Government is going to need to transform the way its buildings are powered and heated, and make them ‘active’: moving beyond just lower net energy demand to be net contributors of green electricity to the grid. Active buildings not only have smart systems to enable different bits of kit to speak to each other and optimise energy consumption; they also feature on-site electricity generation and storage capabilities, making the buildings net contributors to the grid. Multiplying this across the scale of the Government estate can lead to huge savings – both financial and environmental.

Every piece of smart cladding, every heat pump, every solar panel, will help the Government save money and the planet by reaching net zero. Adding to this the reduced demand on the grid and the increased energy self-sufficiency at a time of major supply issues makes the attraction even clearer.

Practical implications

We’re already seeing departments like the MoJ and MoD proactively looking for these solutions, working with contractors to add new technologies to their buildings that improve their energy efficiency and generate their own electricity. Extrapolating those benefits to a building like an aircraft hangar essentially turns it into a miniature power station.

With over 60% of Government buildings in the lower half of EPC ratings, this drive for net zero is clearly going to dominate the Government’s construction agenda for years to come.

So how does this filter down the construction supply chain?

The enormity of the challenge to Government, conversely, presents huge opportunities for suppliers. The commitment to net zero in buildings won’t just apply to large-scale infrastructure and retrofitting projects. At every level, we’re seeing a drive for lower emissions for buildings. This means new housing developments greenlit by local governments will also increasingly be required to have the cleanest boilers or EV charging points, heightening the demand for the expertise to do this.

If the Government is adopting active buildings, smart systems and new technologies as the standard which it thinks will take it to net zero, then construction firms can and should learn from these decisions and adapt their plans accordingly. Being on the same page as the UK’s biggest customer will reap clear advantages, commercially and ecologically.

However, making buildings active won’t just be about installing new boilers, but also about understanding the new technologies which link up this new hardware to make whole new systems. Recent estimates suggest that up to 60,000 plumbing engineers will be needed to install these new boilers and heating systems on time for 2030, with only 3% of that number currently trained. Of course not all of these will be working on Government buildings, but the demand for these skills is only going to grow, driven significantly by public-sector projects.

Training a new generation of engineers is going to be vital, and is a step which every business throughout the supply chain can start to take. Government demand for systems based around heat pumps, solar panels and other technologies is only going to grow. Firms can and should act now to capitalise on this.

The Government and Civil Service have been characterised as many things over the years: bureaucratic, parsimonious, slow. But we’re now seeing a new development. The Government, through its building stock, is becoming active. No other landlord can move the dial towards net zero like it can. With this move comes plenty of opportunity for us all.

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