In December 2015, the UK joined 195 countries in signing an historic global deal to tackle climate change. The Paris Agreement commits the international community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid some of the most severe impacts of climate change. The UK has long-term, legally-binding targets to bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
The government's Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener (October 2021) sets out policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet the net zero target by 2050. The strategy states that the science could not be clearer: by the middle of this century the world has to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible, with the small amount of remaining emissions absorbed through natural carbon sinks like forests, and new technologies like carbon capture. The strategy recognises the importance of the planning system to common challenges like combating climate change and supporting sustainable growth. One of the key commitments in the strategy is: ensure the planning system can support the deployment of low carbon energy infrastructure.
The Climate Change Committee's Sixth Carbon Budget was introduced into law in 2021 and this sets a target to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 (compared with 1990 levels). Meeting the Sixth Carbon Budget, which delivers three-quarters of the emissions reductions needed to reach net zero by 2050, is the only way that the UK can deliver on its contribution to the Paris Agreement. It requires the UK to reduce emissions by 2.25% of 1990 levels per year. Alongside the Sixth Carbon Budget, the Climate Change Committee has published a report for local authorities detailing their commitments to net zero and how to achieve them.
In May 2019, the Climate Change Committee published the report: Net Zero – The UK's contribution to stopping global warming, which proposed the net zero target. The report found that the target will be met through known technologies alongside improvements in people's lives. Different sectors are set out; for buildings the report finds that net zero can be achieved through efficiency, heat networks and heat pumps in the 2020s and electrification, expanded heat networks and potential switch to hydrogen in the 2030/40s. For land use, the report finds that afforestation and peatland restoration are needed. The report acknowledges that societal and behaviour changes are important. The report recommends that the foundations for change are in place, but a major ramp up in policy effort is required. We can all play our part in mitigating and adapting to climate change and a major ramp up across all sectors, including local government, is needed.
The State of Nature 2019 reported that climate change is one of the most significant threats to global biodiversity. While climate change has had the second largest impact (after agricultural change) on UK nature over the last 40 years, impacts on wildlife have been mixed. There is growing evidence that climate change is driving widespread and rapid changes in the abundance, distribution, and ecology of the UK's wildlife, causing changes to species communities and will continue to do so for decades or even centuries to come. Conserving and restoring nature-rich areas of the UK will contribute to mitigating climate change and benefit species, while strategies to counter the negative effects of climate change will help species to adapt to its increasing influence in future.
National Planning Policy and Legislation
There is a strong duty placed on plan-making to mitigate and adapt to climate change by Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 Section 19. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) brings the Climate Change Act 2008 target regime (via footnote 53) into plan-making. The Planning and Energy Act 2008 empowers local authorities to set higher standards on energy efficiency.
Paragraph 8 of the NPPF makes clear that mitigating and adapting to climate change is a core planning objective. To be in conformity with the NPPF, local development plans should reflect this principle, ensuring that planning policy clearly and comprehensively deals with climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Section 14 of the NPPF (paras 152-173): Meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change is relevant. The NPPF says that the planning system should support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate, taking full account of flood risk and coastal change. It should help to: shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, minimise vulnerability and improve resilience; encourage the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings; and support renewable and low carbon energy and associated infrastructure (paragraph 152). The NPPF states that plans should take a proactive approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change, taking into account flood risk, coastal change, water supply, biodiversity and landscapes, and the risk of overheating from rising temperatures (paragraph 153).
New development should be planned for in ways that avoid increased vulnerability to the range of impacts arising from climate change (through adaptation measures including the planning of green infrastructure), and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through location, orientation, and design (paragraph 154).
Paragraph 155 says that to increase the use and supply of renewable and low carbon energy and heat, plans should provide a positive strategy for energy from these sources, consider identifying suitable areas for renewable energy, and identify opportunities for development to draw its energy supply from decentralized, renewable or low carbon energy supply systems.
The Future Homes and Buildings Standard is a set of rules that will come into effect from 2025 to ensure new buildings produce less carbon emissions. The government introduced major Building Regulations changes in June 2022, with new homes in England now needing to produce around 30% less carbon emissions from the energy uses that are covered by Building Regulations (known as regulated energy use, e.g. heating, lighting and hot water) compared to the old regulations. However, regulated energy use is estimated to only make up 50% of the total energy use in homes. Councils in Essex, including Colchester City Council as part of the Local Plan Review, are looking at developing net zero planning policies to ensure new development is the best it can be in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation (including minimising emissions from all energy use not just regulated emissions) and contribute to wider energy system objectives so we stay on track with the UK 2050 target.
Further government consultation on changes to Building Regulations is expected in 2023 with legislation introduced in 2024, ahead of implementation of the Future Homes Standard in 2025.
Essex Climate Action Commission
Essex County Council (ECC) has formed an Essex Climate Action Commission, which recognises the role of planning in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The first report – Net Zero: Making Essex Carbon Neutral was published in July 2021.
The plan brings together the work of the Commission across the past year. The Commission recognise that the natural world is our best ally in reversing climate change – it is key to absorbing and storing carbon. Risks from already changing weather systems – more flooding, over-heating, soil degradation, subsidence and water shortage can be tackled by making space for green infrastructure and nurturing our natural world.
The report says that if we are to succeed in our goal of Essex becoming a net zero county by 2050, the bulk of the work needs to be done in the next decade. In this report, the Essex Climate Action Commission, makes recommendations that they believe are both necessary for Essex to be net zero by 2050 as well as achievable. Many of them are for measures to be taken, or be well underway, by 2030. The Commission believe that the measures detailed in the report will also lead to an improved natural environment for people to enjoy and a vibrant economy for the benefit of local jobs and livelihoods. By transforming Essex into a net zero county, it can become a sustainable, thriving place to live, work and play.
The Commission's work is structured around the following six core themes: land use and green infrastructure, energy, the built environment, transport, waste, and community engagement.
The emissions from our buildings account for 26% of the UK's total emissions. 18% of this total is from our homes. Tackling these emissions is essential to mitigating climate change, and also would benefit occupiers too. It is therefore important for new homes to be designed and built to use significantly less energy which also means they would cost a lot less to run. Building to higher fabric standards also means that our buildings will be more resilient to the impacts of a changing climate and improve the comfort, health and wellbeing of occupants.
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