Delivering Net Zero Carbon Developments: Is the Property Industry ready?
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
In short – the answer has to currently be ‘no’!
The first step to achieving ‘net zero carbon development’ has to be understanding what that actually means so that the various opportunities and approaches to address the requirement can be fully considered and assessed. If asked to define a ‘net zero carbon development’, one would be hard pushed to find someone in the industry who could readily provide an accurate and consistent description.
So what is a ‘net zero carbon development’?
Technically, ‘net zero carbon development’ should refer to an assessment of carbon emitted during both the construction and operational stages of a development. It relates not only to the buildings themselves, but all components of a site and the impact that those living and working at the site will have on the environment. It therefore relates to all activities undertaken during the lifespan of a development. In addition to consideration of the construction and future use of buildings, it would also include analysis of trip rates, sustainable transport options and the resulting emissions from transportation. Going further, one could also examine the impact of consumer purchasing, deliveriesand waste production, since these are part of the carbon emitted during our day-to-day activities.
To date, most analysis and planning policies have been focused on the buildings themselves, rather than considering all components of the life cycle of a development and activities undertaken by those living and working there.
What are the planning implications for the Property and Development Industry?
In England, section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 placed a legal obligation on local authorities to ensure that planning policy contributes to the mitigation of climate change. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) 2012 strengthened this by stating that local plans should “contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gases”. In addition, the NPPF 2021 now requires that sustainable development patterns should, “improve the environment; mitigate climate change (including by making effective use of land in urban areas) and adapt to its effects…”
At least partly in response to these over-arching requirements, various references to ‘net zero carbon buildings’, ‘net zero carbon development’ (in addition to zero carbon and carbon neutral buildings/ developments) are being embedded in many emerging and adopted local plans with requirements that will change how schemes are planned, designed and built. Policy-makers, those determining applications, and those reviewing the evidence base of emerging policies and submitting applications will need to ensure they understand the nuances and implications of this terminology in terms of the design, deliverability and viability of a scheme.
These nuances will inform the evidence supporting policies, the spatial planning of urban areas and location of land uses within sites, as well as the design of the buildings, transport systems and open space which may need to accommodate renewable energy options.
What action is being taken?
Bristol was the first British council to declare a climate emergency in 2018, many others have now followed suit. As of April 2021 224 local authorities across England had declared a climate emergency, representing 71% of the country’s total.
Of the areas that have announced a climate emergency, 71% have an up-to-date local plan in place. As of April 2021, whilst only 19% of these local plans contain specific energy efficiency or binding carbon policies, encouragingly 50% of plans adopted in 2020 contain specific carbon emission reduction policies. This compares to just 13% of those adopted in 2015.
Local authorities currently have the ability to set higher energy-efficiency standards than the existing Part L requirements or stipulate a minimum BREEAM rating. 67 local authorities in England have policies for residential development in their most recently adopted local plans that do this, accounting for 21% of local authorities across the country.
These policies are more frequently found in urban areas, including Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Portsmouth and multiple London boroughs. Where a carbon pricing figure is specified, many local authorities have used £60 per tonne of carbon emitted over a 30 year period as a baseline for offsetting. There is however flexibility in the application of this figure as schemes must remain viable to ensure delivery. Similarly, in higher value areas, a higher level of pricing is possible; in Bristol and in the London Plan financial contributions are set at £95 per tonne over 30 years, although London Boroughs can set their own requirements beyond this baseline.
In June 2019 the Government committed in law to achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, requiring the UK’s emissions in 2050 to be equal to or less than what is removed from the atmosphere by either the natural environment or carbon capture technologies.
Are policies translating into the delivery of viable developments?
There is often a tension between the environmental, social and economic requirements of policies; how to balance the need to consider carbon reduction, delivery of affordable housing and all of the necessary social infrastructure associated with new development.
But it is possible for a viable and successful development to achieve all of this. This is particularly the case when the early design of a scheme is informed by all policy requirements of a scheme, with a consultant team that includes those specialising in sustainability and achieving net zero carbon. Companies such as Savills (through Savills Earth) have established a specialised team bringing together experts to support and advise clients on their sustainability, energy and carbon strategies.
Examples of the successful delivery of low carbon developments include Parc Eirin, a development of 225 zero carbon ready homes in Tonyrefail, and 3 homes at The Mill at Canton in Cardiff. Both developments were supported by Sero, low carbon technology experts.
Parc Eirin and The Mill were part of a domestic demand side response project called FLATLINE (Fixed Level Affordable Tariffs led by Intelligently Networked Energy) and demonstrated the effectiveness of shifting demand from the National Grid, allowing the homes to completely avoid drawing energy from the national grid at peak times through utilising generated and stored energy within the home’s batteries. This has resulted in these homes being incredibly efficient with running costs significantly cheaper than those of a traditional home. Residents are currently experiencing energy bill savings of around 25-60% compared to a standard property with an EPC B rating.
Another is Springfield Meadows in Southmoor, Oxfordshire: a project of 25 “climate positive homes, including 9 affordable homes, providing ‘comfortable low-carbon living’”. All 25 homes are built to the same ‘Passivhaus standards’. Greencore, the developers, say that the development provides “zero embodied carbon [and] net-zero carbon energy in use”, and that the second phase of the project “locks up more carbon than it emits and generates more energy than it uses” - i.e. is carbon positive.
The strengthening of planning policies will help increase the number of low carbon developments being delivered.
Across England there is little correlation between local authorities declaring a climate emergency and implementation of climate mitigation and adaptation measures in their local plans, highlighting that the property industry has a way to go to successfully be “planning and delivering net zero carbon developments”. Planners have to balance net zero carbon commitments with required housing delivery, decoupling emissions from growth.
Although the terminology is complex and often mis-used, there is a general understanding both within the property industry and more widely that there is a need to reduce carbon emissions and that the development industry has a pivotal role to play in this. This principle is now being embedded in many emerging and adopted local plans with requirements that will change how schemes are planned, designed and built. The fact that almost four times the number of local plans adopted in 2020 contain specific carbon emission reduction policies compared to those adopted in 2015 demonstrates the positive direction of travel.
Buildings and developments are being granted planning permission and constructed that make significant steps to reduce their carbon footprint, with some developments, such as Springfield Meadows in Oxfordshire, making steps to become carbon positive.
Whilst there is a long way to go, that journey has definitely begun. With the right specialist input alongside continued public interest, it can continue to gain traction and translate into the delivery of viable net zero carbon developments.
Author: Julia Mountford
Julia’s work focuses on the promotion of residential led strategic sites through the development plan process. She advises clients in relation to planning strategy, development opportunities, and the submission of planning applications and planning appeals. Julia is an experienced professional, with good analytical skills, balanced by commercial realism.