Industry Insights – June 2021: Climate Action – Promises over Progress?

By Jen Heil | July 2, 2021

Well folks, it’s hard to believe that this issue marks a whole year since we first launched Industry Insights, but there it is! Understanding the landscape our clients are operating in is a really key part of what we do – in fact, we think our research-based approach is what sets us apart. We’ve enjoyed pulling together these pieces and sharing a big picture look at the industry and we hope you’re finding them valuable too.

Without further ado, this month we’re exploring the Climate Change Committee’s latest progress report and examining the Architects’ Journal’s #RetroFirst campaign, which calls for the prioritisation of retrofitting existing buildings over demolition and rebuild.

Spotlight on the Climate Change Committee’s 2021 Progress Report to Parliament: Is the Government prioritising lofty promise over actual progress?

This year’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) assessment examines the UK’s progress in reducing emissions and in adapting to climate change, providing over 200 joint recommendations across all areas of policy. The Progress Report offers due credit for the Government’s historic climate promises made over the last year but criticises the slowness or even lack of action in delivery.

Regarding the reduction of emissions, the CCC acknowledges that – with the adoption of the Sixth Carbon Budget – the UK has now committed to an ambitious path to Net Zero. However, the challenge now shifts significantly from target setting to delivery and, as a result, the Committee will be focusing on real world progress and undertaking tougher scrutiny of Government plans. Despite the increasingly aspirational climate promises to come out of this government, an urgent step-change is needed in order to plug the current policy gap. The report finds that “credible policies for delivery currently cover only around 20% of the required reduction in emissions to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget”.

The progress report lays out several clear points of action that are needed to close this gap:

  • The public must be brought along with the transition through improved public information and meaningful engagement.
  • The Net Zero Strategy must offer quantified, credible pathways for sectoral decarbonisation, technology deployment and behaviour changes backed by specific policies.
  • The Treasury must ensure an equitable and long-term approach to funding the transition, which distributes the costs, savings and wider benefits of decarbonisation fairly.
  • The Strategy should set clear timelines for policy development that match the urgency of the challenge, supported by a strong, coherent and joined-up policy framework. Credible policies to deliver the ambitions of the Net Zero Strategy should be fully in place by 2024 at the latest.
  • The Strategy should initiate a strengthened role for local delivery with all levels of government committed to ambitious climate action, including better coordination and support across these levels, workable business models, removal of barriers to action, dedicated funding and an approach that enables regional action to complement action at the national level.
  • All policy decisions must be compatible with the Government’s climate commitments, demonstrated through introduction of a Net Zero Test to ensure compliance.

The CCC lays out comprehensive recommendations department by department, addressing all aspects of the Net Zero challenge. One that stands out for the construction industry is the need to urgently upgrade the UK’s existing building stock. The report notes that “insulation rates remain well below the peak market delivery achieved up to 2012 before key policies were scrapped”. Despite several schemes being rolled out over the last 20 years, including the recent Green Homes Grant, none have been delivered effectively or managed to reinvigorate the retrofit market to the level needed. Furthermore, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) is not sufficiently supporting local government to play its part in the transition to Net Zero. To date, inadequate progress has been made on ensuring that building standards are fit for purpose and properly enforced and the current Planning Bill misses a significant opportunity to ensure that developments and infrastructure are Net Zero compliant.

Examining progress in adapting to climate change, the CCC highlights that “the UK Government’s National Adaptation Programme has not delivered the necessary improved resilience to the changing climate as was intended under the UK Climate Change Act”. The Committee’s assessment shows limited change in progress scores since 2019 with improved assessment scores given to only 5 out of the 34 adaptation priorities. Whilst the pandemic will have caused some disruption and delays, we simply cannot afford prolonged inaction. It is essential that the forthcoming 3rd National Adaption Programme sets out comprehensive actions linked to the economic recovery efforts following COVID-19.

Even with ambitious global efforts to reduce emissions, further climate change is inevitable. Action must be taken to ensure the UK is prepared to deal with increased risks of flash and coastal flooding and rising summer temperatures. It’s also vital that action in both emission reduction and climate adaptation is designed in such a way that it improves social equality. The most vulnerable communities in the UK and around the world are already disproportionately impacted by the effects of the climate crisis – we cannot let the cost of climate action fall on their shoulders as well. A new green social contract, which accounts for both domestic and international inequities, should be a key part of our future action to ensure fair and sustainable progress for all.

It’s clear that whilst ambitious targets abound the action in practice is severely lacking. There needs to be a radical shift in understanding from government and business leaders, recognising that climate targets cannot be empty promises – the very future of our planet depends on them being more than that.

RetroFirst: Why we need to reuse before we rebuild

According to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), of the 200 million tonnes of waste generated in Britain annually, 63 per cent is construction debris. We lose more than 50,000 buildings through demolition every year. And this, quite frankly, is a problem. Demolition is environmentally, economically and socially undesirable, undermining every pillar of sustainability. Both costly and unpopular with the general public, demolition perpetuates a wasteful approach to construction, haphazardly tearing down and building from scratch rather than preserving and improving what already exists. In contrast, retrofitting serves to conserve and enhance existing neighbourhoods and structures and offers significant embodied energy savings.

With the arguments in favour of retrofitting so undeniably strong, we might be led to wonder why demolition and rebuild persists in being the norm. The Architect’s Journal (AJ) campaign, RetroFirst – originally launched in 2019 – sets out the main barriers and three key demands to overcome them.


AJ identifies the most significant barrier to retrofit as the distorted VAT system which sees 20% VAT charged on refurbishment works but only between 0-5% on new build. RetroFirst is calling for a significant cut to the VAT rate on refurbishment, repair and maintenance from 20% to 5%.


Reflecting the findings of the CCC’s 2021 Progress Report to Parliament, explored above, there is something of a policy gap that needs to be addressed, as current policy does little to encourage the adoption of circular principles that would support wider uptake of retrofitting. RetroFirst is seeking policy reform that would promote the reuse of existing building stock and reclaimed construction material by introducing new clauses into planning guidance and the building regs.


Despite recent changes in the UK’s public procurement guidance, there’s no doubt that it still falls short when it comes to embedding sustainable development principles. The campaign’s final demand therefore calls for stimulation of the circular economy and support for a whole-life carbon approach in construction by insisting that all publicly funded projects look to retrofit solutions first.

At the end of June 2021, AJ Managing Editor and RetroFirst campaign founder, Will Hurst, wrote about the UK’s disgraceful demolition trend in The Times, reiterating the need for a focused retrofit strategy going forward. The campaign has widespread industry support and is the subject of a new short film voiced by architect and broadcaster George Clarke. Although the campaign has been around since 2019, the demands it calls for are more pressing and relevant than ever. If we are to truly step up in the face of the climate crisis, embracing circular principles and removing barriers to sustainable development has to be a priority. We hope to see the RetroFirst campaign continue to gain momentum and backing.

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