News that the London Ultra Low Emission Zone has expanded to cover all London boroughs was met with furious opposition, yet was declared lawful and took effect on 29 August 2023. Now, buildings in the city of London are being targeted in a move to continue to reduce harmful emissions, to contribute to increased public health and to support the achievement of the government's Net Zero By 2050 target.
ULEZ for buildings?
It is said that the built environment in London is responsible for up to 50% of the nitrogen dioxide that is released into the environment, contributing to poor air quality and increasing the prevalence of respiratory health conditions.
It has been proposed that the pollution created by building, heating and powering our homes and businesses is a significant threat to the achievement of the government's target and may be contributing to millions of premature deaths every year. In a bid to tackle this threat, new measures are being considered.
One of these is the potential introduction of a ULEZ charge for buildings. It is anticipated that this would work in much the same way as the ULEZ charge for polluting vehicles, with charges being issued based on an emissions calculation.
Built structures primarily release emissions into the environment through their heating system. Poorly insulated buildings that are heated using oil or gas are considered to be highly polluting, releasing considerably more toxins into the atmosphere than a well insulated property that is heated using renewable energy sources.
Is there a wider motive?
Clearly, the government's desire to achieve its Net Zero target is a significant incentive. However, the announcement that all new vehicle registrations will be electric by 2030 is very likely to be a contributing factor.
At present, the greatest barrier to the wholesale introduction of electric vehicles is the lack of supporting infrastructure. If all of the diesel and petrol vehicles in the UK were replaced with electric vehicles tomorrow, the national grid would be incapable of powering them all.
However, if the majority of domestic and commercial properties relied on next-gen renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic solar panels and ground source air pumps for their heating needs, there would be a greater capacity in the grid for powering electric vehicles.
How would changes be implemented?
At present, there is no detailed plan as to how the government intends to reduce the emissions from the built environment, but we have considered a number of factors and believe that the following measures are likely to be implemented ahead of a ULEZ charge or penalties on polluting buildings.
1. New planning regulations will restrict or eliminate the installation of oil and gas boilers in new properties. It is likely that stricter energy efficiency standards will be implemented regarding insulation, and targets will be set for making homes and businesses as self-sufficient as possible, generating enough electricity through renewable means to satisfy the heating and power needs of their occupants.
2. Construction firms will be required to provide evidence of their efforts to minimise wastage, disruption and pollution. Use of BIM technology and off-site modular construction will likely be encouraged as a low carbon alternative to traditional methods of construction. Firms may be required to offset their carbon footprint through the creation of green spaces or pay increased taxes where they are unable to satisfy carbon efficiency limits.
3. Incentives are likely to be issued in the form of government grants to encourage owners of the most polluting buildings to implement energy efficiency measures, such as increasing insulation measures and replacing inefficient energy sources with modern alternatives.
Are penalties likely?
We think that this depends on how successful the above three measures are. Implementing punitive measures is a significant administration burden, and though it may result in increased revenue in the form of taxes, this will be balanced against the other challenges that our government is currently tackling, including but not limited to energy security, BREXIT, defence of the realm and increasing global trade links.
We believe that the most likely outcome will be that guidance will be updated for construction firms that are engaged in the construction of new commercial and domestic properties in the first instance with a timeline within which they must demonstrate compliance.
Following this, a programme of retrofitting will be enacted, to attempt to bring existing public buildings up to modern standards. Privately owned commercial and residential properties in urban areas will most likely be set a timescale within which they must become compliant with new standards, although grants will probably be available to help to achieve these new standards.
Only once all programmes of modernisation are in place, are punitive measures likely to be considered, and it is likely that these will be targeted initially towards new housebuilders and construction firms that are engaged in significant infrastructure projects in order to generate quick wins and motivate others to accelerate compliance activity.
We believe that it is necessary to improve our air quality but feel that a pragmatic approach will achieve greater success than the immediate implementation of penalties and charges for the owners of polluting buildings.