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David Frise Aug 7, 2023 11:00:00 AM 6 min read

Who believes in net zero?



The result of the Uxbridge by-election clearly swung away from Labour because of determined local opposition to the extension of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). 

The seat resigned by Boris Johnson remains in Conservative hands because of a single environmental policy – one that has far-reaching consequences for climate change and air pollution. This has prompted something of a political ‘wobble’ on the part of both Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and London Mayor Sadiq Khan – will they stick to their guns or take the easy way out?

Meanwhile, the government is being taken to court for the second time in less than two years over its climate strategies. Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and Good Law Project have denounced the updated Net-Zero Growth Plan as “feeble and inadequate” and castigated the Conservative administration for failing to explain how emerging technologies – such as hydrogen, carbon capture and storage – will be delivered.  

Talk is cheap, but delivery is what matters 

Voters want change but not at any (personal) cost and the government will continue to ‘govern by announcement’ to try and avoid a political backlash. In the meantime, our industry is floundering. 

The built environment is the UK’s second biggest source of carbon emissions behind road transport. It is responsible for more than 17% of the UK’s total. To keep the country on track towards a net zero economy by 2050, emissions from our sector need to fall by 43% by the end of this decade. That’s steep. 

Overall greenhouse gas emissions are down by 46% since 1990 and in the built environment they fell by 15% in a single year (2008). However, they have pretty much flatlined since and the recent 2023 Progress Report to Parliament produced by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said confidence that the UK would meet its climate goals was “diminishing”.  

The government issues statement after statement about the need for net zero, but it is not capable of delivering it, as this new legal action will highlight. But delivery is not in the hands of politicians. They can set targets and create policy, but individual companies and industries must do the work. The building services industry has a massive part to play, but are we ready to play it? 

Two new pieces of BESA research show that, not unlike the Uxbridge voters, we seem unwilling to pay for change.  

The industry is lagging on net zero and more to the point it’s not even preparing 

Along with our partners in the umbrella body Actuate UK, BESA commissioned the Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) to dig into the skills issues hampering the engineering services sector’s response. This, along with the latest quarterly Building Engineering Business Survey (BEBS), which is carried out by BESA in partnership with fellow trade bodies ECA, SELECT and SNIPEF, confirms what most of us already knew:  

The research confirmed that net zero targets set for 2050 will not be met unless building services engineers are trained in the appropriate and emerging technologies – upskilling must be on the agenda, but instead our skills gap continues to grow. 

Skilling up the workforce is still not an investment built environment businesses are willing to make, despite the challenges and huge opportunities that this agenda presents – even without our clear moral and social obligations to deliver change. 

The industry is still fixated on cost 

Despite all the talk around decarbonisation of buildings and the tough new safety culture introduced by the Building Safety Act promising to transform the culture of construction supply chains, this remains an industry fixated on cost and reticent to invest in the improvements it needs to flourish into the future. 

There is a huge, missed business opportunity here. The best firms look to differentiate themselves from the lumpen middle ground by scaling up, skilling up and making themselves stand out from the crowd. Some are doing it, but not many. 

We also talk and talk about reaching out to a new generation of skilled people who can help us transform our businesses by adopting modern digital technologies. We need thousands of people who can harness AI and other transformative techniques, but we are not recruiting them. 

Yet, 61% of respondents to our business survey reported high numbers of vacancies, which underscores the demand for building services expertise.  However, BESA members say they are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit suitably qualified staff, as their time is often consumed by chasing payments rather than investing in training, recruitment, and staff retention. 

73% of respondents to our business survey felt that the sector, as it is now, will not be able to deliver quality net zero buildings at scale.  68% of respondents did not feel it was easy for their company or organisation to find people with the right skills and 63% said it would still not be easy to find staff with the right skills in five years’ time.  

This is not just about business growth. It is also about survival 

The CCC, which was set up under the Climate Change Act to advise the government, was particularly critical of the slow pace of heat decarbonisation. It said just 72,000 new heat pumps were installed in the UK last year against a target of 130,000.  

We currently have slower installation rates of heat pumps than 21 other European countries and are installing ten times fewer than France, which is already installing over 600,000 a year (our 2028 target) and has a similar heating market, according to research from the MCS Charitable Foundation. 

The built environment is pivotal – not just because it is such a big emitter but also because it underpins so much of our economic and social activity.  We must upgrade thousands of buildings to make them fit for the future and to meet net zero. As well as reducing environmental harm, this could have major social benefits by providing upgraded facilities for work, leisure, healthcare etc. with lower running costs, better air quality and improved comfort. 

The government’s ambitious £20bn hospital building and refurbishment programme is a case in point because it sets out to improve the “patient experience” and speed up recovery times to shorten waiting lists. This is not just about reducing energy use and carbon emissions. 

That is the ambition, but it won’t happen unless the industry develops the necessary capacity and skill – and that requires investment, which is manifestly missing.  

The biggest challenge and the biggest prize is retrofitting buildings  

The ESC report concluded that there was no ‘net zero culture’ in construction and one would be needed to shift the focus away from cost and onto quality. There are examples of net zero best practice out there, but they are not the norm. 

Finding that culture depends, not just on adopting low carbon solutions, but on accepting a new approach to the way we work together as supply chains, including fair and on time payment so companies can invest and diversify. 

Doing what we say. Meeting our obligations. These things are important in all walks of life but even more critical when it comes to retrofitting the built environment to improve quality of life and tackle climate change.  

There has to be a cost but what sort of future will we have if we aren’t prepared to pay it? 

Read the full skills reportand on the Energy Systems Catapult.