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Housing’s role in tackling the climate emergency cannot be overestimated

By Aaron Hill, SFHA Director of Policy and Membership.

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Tackling the climate emergency is the most pressing issue of our time, and, with COP26 just around the corner, the pressure for governments and institutions to act grows by the day. With heat from buildings accounting for around 20% of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions, housing’s role in tackling the climate emergency cannot be overestimated.

However, social landlords cannot act alone. To truly make a lasting impact, and deliver a fair and just transition to zero-emissions homes, we must work together with the Scottish Government and other partners.

This call to take collective action was one of the key recommendations of the Zero Emissions Social Housing Taskforce (ZEST), which was co-chaired by our Chief Executive, Sally Thomas. ZEST was convened earlier this year by then Housing Minister Kevin Stewart and tasked with examining, and making recommendations on, what is required of the social housing sector to maximise its contribution to the government’s climate change targets.

The taskforce also called for the Scottish Government to commit to a fair and just transition to net zero emissions homes, ensuring no tenant is left behind with energy bills they can’t afford or a heating system they can’t operate. With over a third of social housing tenants living in fuel poverty, it’s critical that achieving net zero emissions in social housing doesn’t exacerbate this. The news this week from energy regulator Ofgem that gas prices are likely to remain at their staggeringly high levels for some time provides a timely reminder of the need to act on both energy efficiency and fuel poverty.

We must also consider the specific challenges faced by Scotland’s rural, remote and island communities, including limited fuel options, higher energy costs and a high proportion of hard-to-treat stock. It is important that the transition takes a localised approach and meets the distinct needs of these communities.

So, the question is: how do we deliver a fair and just transition to zero-emissions homes that allows our sector to continue to reduce fuel poverty and keep rents affordable? Achieving this will be dependent on three crucial aspects: a clear action plan, significant investment and a fabric-first approach which prioritises ensuring the materials used to construct homes are as energy efficient as possible before considering heating systems.

While last week’s Programme for Government announced £1.8 billion for energy efficiency upgrades and renewable heating – of which £100 million will go into the Net Zero Heat Fund – it will not be sufficient for the scale of improvement required to meet the Scottish Government’s ambitious climate change and energy efficiency targets. This includes the Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing (EESSH2) which we know from our own research will cost £2 billion but reduce fuel poverty by less than a quarter. We will continue to call for the Scottish Government to urgently bring forward the review of the standard to ensure that we can strike the right balance on these issues.

By 2045, over two million homes will need to transition from fossil fuel-based systems to low and zero-emissions systems such as heat pumps, heat networks and other technologies. While it’s clear there is much work to be done before this is delivered, our sector is already driving forward progress in reducing emissions. Over half of Scotland’s social housing stock already achieves a good level of energy efficiency, compared to two-fifths in the private rented and owner-occupied sectors. Our sector can use its expertise, working with the government to attract investment, create jobs in the green economy, and improve the warmth and comfort of homes to tackle both climate change and fuel poverty together, achieving a fair and just transition.

We must act on the momentum that’s growing and do everything we can to combat the effects of the climate emergency. Scotland’s housing association and co-operatives are already playing our part, and we stand ready to work with the Scottish Government and other partners to do even more.

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