Wednesday, October 27, 2021

BESA's COP26 Manifesto – turning vision into reality

Environmental activist Greta Thurnberg dismissed the COP26 conference in Glasgow as a talking shop. Just more ‘blah, blah, blah’ and no action, however, some in our sector believe it doesn’t need to be like that.

74% of respondents to a recent BESA webinar poll said the COP26 Conference would be a ‘game changer’ for our industry and 81% said it would increase business across the sector.

The built environment is responsible for more than 40% of global emissions so needs to step up, but it also must be part of the bigger discussion. Within that, the UK building engineering services sector comprises over 60,000 firms and over 350,000 skilled professionals, employees and contractors.

It contributes more than 40% of UK construction by value and over £100 billion pounds of additional turnover annually through the provision of ongoing infrastructure and facilities services.

How we respond to the COP26 challenge is important for everyone

The UK has five main goals that would make Glasgow a success:

  1. Get sign up from the rest of the nations for net zero by 2050 (UK is already legally committed)
  2. Also get them to commit to significant GHG cuts by 2030
  3. Agree to spend $100bn a year on climate change mitigation
  4. Finalise the rules for delivering the Paris Agreement
  5. Commit to limiting global warming to between 1.5degC and 2degC

What is the UK doing?

The UK has a Climate Change Policy, which already puts us ahead of many other countries, but the detail is slow to emerge. However, the publication of the long-awaited Heat & Buildings Strategy has offered some crucial pointers for the building engineering sector and has been widely welcomed as a useful starting point for decarbonising heat.

It is an example of how detailed sector specific plans can work in tandem with the UK’s broader headline goals:

  1. Phasing out coal by 2024
  2. Decarbonising UK electricity by 2035
  3. All organisations bidding for government contracts above £5m in value required to provide emissions plans for achieving net zero by 2050
  4. Achieving a 78% cut in carbon emissions by 2035 – probably more challenging than the 2050 goal.

 What does this mean for our industry and BESA in particular?

The role of politicians like those attending COP26 is to set the framework and provide vision.

This can help to drive investment and create a moral context for sustainability (‘levelling up’ etc.) Our responsibility as building services engineers is to work on the detail of delivering that vision because they don’t know it and without realistic plans, their vision will fail. 

Politicians must be prepared to listen to organisations like ours who can help them get the detail right and help avoid pitfalls such as:

  1. Regulation can have unforeseen consequences. They might be well-intentioned, but if you insulate tight, for example, you must ventilate right. Let’s help them get it right.
  2. Fuel poverty…tax on gas will push more families over the edge. Government wants to create price parity between gas boilers and electric heat pumps, which is essential to drive take up of low carbon alternatives, but that could also create a short-term hit for fuel poor households by pushing up gas prices even further.
  3. Losing sight of the bigger picture because this is not just about business and carbon – it is also a moral issue. The poor and the young will suffer most from the impact including overheating buildings, bad air quality as well as flooding, heatwaves etc. These are things we can influence.

 Potential technical solutions for decarbonising HVAC

  1. Heat pumps – a great political ambition which we welcome, but there is a massive skills issue which must be addressed (can all boiler installers switch to low temperature systems, for example?). BESA is working in partnership with other organisations to identify and develop the necessary green collar skills and attract workers into the sector.
  2. Heat networks – this is still only a tiny proportion of UK heat, but key to decarbonising heat. The government’s new £270m Green Heat Network Fund is a welcome step to help increase this sector’s contribution. BESA is also supporting this work through its Heat Interface Unit (HIU) testing regime.
  3. Energy efficiency – improved levels of insulation needs to underpin our efforts to improve building performance and BESA supports calls for a national retrofit programme. This must, however, also consider the role of mechanical ventilation with heat recovery to ensure buildings that are better sealed do not just store up indoor air quality problems. BESA is collaborating with the Energy Systems Trade Association (ESTA) via its joint Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EEIB) specialist group to advance this work.
  4. Hydrogen – The government’s new Heat & Buildings strategy creates a context for hydrogen and there is growing momentum behind this approach. BESA is working with its industry partners to ensure members are fully informed about the potential and likely implications for the future of heat in the UK.
  5. Lifecycle of the building – we must look at the longer-term, whole life cycle of our built environment. This includes fit for purpose building maintenance as properly maintained buildings and systems run more effectively and will be more carbon efficient too. BESA’s Service & Facilities Group and its maintenance standard SFG20 provide recognised best practice.
  6. Commissioning – setting systems up properly to extract maximum potential. Without proper commissioning planned into the project from the outset, buildings will not achieve their low carbon goals even if they are using the right technology. BESA has launched a dedicated commissioning group and is working in partnership with the Commissioning Specialists’ Association to increase understanding of this principle and raise wider awareness.

 Enabling Factors

  1. Green skills agenda – we need a concerted and collaborative programme to promote opportunities in our sector. ‘Net Zero’ is not just about tech; it is about people, and we don’t have enough. COP26 is opportunity to promote great careers in addressing climate crisis including building engineering services – and we have a big role to play. There is a whole supply chain to consider – not just one set of skills. This should be a joint initiative with all the partners in the Actuate UK group.

UK vacancies are at their highest levels since records began at 1.1 million (according to ONS) and unemployment is at 4.5% which is higher than pre-pandemic. Lots of people, particularly the young, are looking for work, but all sectors report a shortage and our unemployed do not seem to be attracted to certain jobs. So, if they can't find an attractive career elsewhere – they can save the planet instead as a building services engineer.

However, this will require a considerable increase in the number of people guided towards technical training with a particular emphasis on STEM subjects and the new vocational routes opening up into engineering professions.

  1. COP26 can stimulate investment so UK Budgets and Spending Reviews will need to agree a level of spending that gives confidence to the markets and sparks further economic growth. The Chancellor will have to consider pulling more financial levers particularly temporary adjustments to VAT levels to incentivise low carbon choices, moving green subsidies from electricity to gas bills etc.
  2. Supply chains – this is not just about products and tech; you need complete supply chains with no gaps. Improving collaboration, sorting out payment issues, upskilling and growing the workforce will underpin delivery of huge swathes of the government net zero plan.
  3. Chancery Lane project – making net zero a legal requirement by inserting it into contract terms and conditions is a must. This could be a ‘game changer’, according to BESA’s legal and commercial team.
  4. Corporate organisations are making pledges which can generate business opportunities. So far more than 2,000 large global companies have pledged to reach net zero by 2050 (one third of these are based in the UK). More will follow after COP26, and all are existing and potential clients of BESA members.

 BESA wish list for COP26 pledges

  1. COP26 to cement vision backed by detailed financial commitments with the annual £100bn to be spent on climate mitigation measures with specific amounts allocated to built environment projects.
  2. The UK Budget and autumn Spending Review to pick this up by setting aside ring-fenced funding for net zero programmes including a national retrofit programme; a plan for green skills; increased support for heat pumps and other low carbon alternatives to fossil fuel heating and cooling.
  3. A more direct focus on the built environment – with a recognition that improving the existing building stock is the key to unlocking low carbon opportunities while simultaneously improving social fairness.
  4. Not just tech – this is also about people (their skills and prospects). This requires a national plan for promoting engineering careers as a whole and building engineering in particular to follow the Glasgow conference.



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