On 8 March 2011 the government launched the UK Carbon Plan with an upbeat foreword written by the Prime Minister. The plan is ambitious and could have wide ramifications for the way we design and manage the building stock over the next generation. It sets out a vision of the future powered by the use of clean energy and better use of ever diminishing supplies of fossil fuels. The plan aims to ensure security of energy supplies, stable energy prices, reduced impact on global temperatures, and, more positively, the creation of new green jobs and new green businesses.

The Carbon PlanThe plan sets out change in three main areas:

  • Electricity generation (switch away from fossil fuels to renewables)
  • Heating of buildings (better insulation and use of low carbon alternatives)
  • Transport (better public transport and more electric vehicles).

Underpinning the lengthy 83 page plan is a recurring faith in new and alternative technologies, better infrastructure planning and better design.

As David Cameron notes 'becoming a low carbon economy will be one of the greatest challenges the UK ever faced'.

For those in the construction industry, the sections dealing with saving energy in homes and communities (chapter 3), reducing emissions from business and industry (chapter 4), towards low carbon transport (chapter 5) and reducing emissions in the public sector (chapter 8) are most relevant. The government calculates that at least a million people will be employed in the low carbon sector by 2015 with environmental goods and services increasing at 4% per year. Although the Carbon Plan puts emphasis on improving energy efficiency and switching to renewable technologies, there are other changes identified. These include the need for government and consumers to act sustainably, plans to support green change through 'localism' and ambition to share the cost of climate change equitably. Inevitably new employment opportunities will be generated in the form of green jobs (1,000 apprenticeships under the Green Deal) and much re-skilling of the construction industry to deliver the planned targets of greenhouse gas reduction by at least 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

The plan identifies homes as an area where particular improvement is needed. Poor insulation levels and inefficient boilers are singled out for attention with talk of even stricter building regulations, greater use of air and ground source heat pumps and district heating tied to local combined heat and power generation. It may sound familiar and timid compared to manifesto pledges, but the Carbon Plan has the benefit of linking energy efficiency to lifestyle changes, health and economic prosperity. There are two weaknesses of this section. The first is the paucity of evidence around cost, particularly life-cycle costing. Even using carbon accounting it should have been possible to justify the planned action in fiscal terms. The second is the lethargic commitment to 'smart meters' in the home. Smart meters are the key to increasing knowledge of the sources of energy supply and use, and hence are central to changing consumer behaviour. The plan talks in terms of starting with the installation of an estimated 50 million smart meters in the summer of 2012 'subject to consultation'. Without a reform of domestic energy bills and a national campaign of smart meters, householders will remain in the dark over their carbon footprint. However, the plan does contain a commitment to require zero carbon new housing by 2016 and for non-domestic buildings by 2019. How zero carbon will be defined remains to be seen.

The priority in the plan is electricity. It forms the opening chapter and is a recurring theme subsequently

As an aside, the author's energy bill for his apartment in Copenhagen lists the sources of electricity supply over the quarter and compares this with the previous two quarters. It also sets out the total energy consumption over the three preceding years as a simple chart. Hence, as a consumer I know that my electricity is generated by coal (40%), natural gas (17%), wind (18%), biomass and waste (13%), oil (5%) and nuclear (7%). If I change supplier I will then get a new profile. Such knowledge is lacking in the UK in spite of the plan.

In terms of job creation and the accelerated flow of green skills and knowledge, the chapter on business and energy efficiency (chapter 4) offers perhaps the most opportunity. The plan estimates that UK business could save around £6.4 billion a year by improved resource efficiency (energy, water and waste) or nearly 1.2% of GDP. In terms of new commercial buildings, the plan believes that 40% of the floor space required by 2050 has yet to be built. This will need to be zero carbon (by 2019) and hence far in excess of BREEAM Excellent. In terms of existing non-domestic stock the plan talks of aligning retrofit to the standards required under the Green Deal for domestic property. Energy Performance Certificates and Display Energy Certificates are both mooted as being extended to cover all commercial buildings. By 2012 company directors will be required to make public disclosure of emissions from their buildings. These changes are likely to bring about job opportunities particularly in energy-related refurbishment of existing offices and retail premises.

Innovation is the key to delivering change. The Carbon Plan talks about a period of transition where new technologies and design approaches are needed in many sectors including the built environment. The plan singles out the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) as one of the vehicles which will be used to drive forward the changes. Another is the Green Investment Bank which will be used in collaboration with private investment to fund infrastructure projects. The bank is intended to underwrite risk as perceived by the private sector in transport and energy projects.

The plan sets out a vision of a zero waste economy. By this the government means not an economy where no waste is generated but one where all waste is recycled or reused in some form or another. The 'cradle to cradle' approach puts value on waste either as a new resource or as energy. Since construction produces around 40% of UK non domestic waste, it is likely to see significant change. Another initiative is in the area of wood-fired heating systems. Here the plan outlines action for wood-fuel harvesting and use under the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

The priority in the plan is electricity. It forms the opening chapter and is a recurring theme subsequently. The government thinks more use will be made of electricity for domestic heating on the assumption no doubt that we will all be living to PassivHaus standards. It anticipates investment alone of £110 billion over the next decade in electricity generation, transmission and distribution. Nuclear power is mentioned but does not provide all the answers (in contrast to Labour's plans towards the end of their tenure). After the events at Fukushima, one imagines nuclear will be an even more remote possibility. This places ever more responsibility on construction to deliver the government's carbon plan.