Spring statement delivers sharper focus to UK’s sustainability

14 March 2019
Amid the Brexit chaos engulfing Westminster, Wednesday saw a brief return to normal service as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond delivered his Spring Statement to the house.

Ramboll. Nicki Marsh. Image courtesy of Paulina Sobczak Photography

Nicki Marsh

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While announcements of investments were lacking due to uncertain times ahead, the Chancellor’s statement focused on policy announcements mainly centred around driving forward the UK’s carbon reduction endeavours.

£3bn affordable homes guarantee scheme

The chancellor has pledged a £3bn affordable homes guarantee scheme aimed at supporting the delivery of around 30,000 affordable homes.

Andy Goddard, Environment & Health principal, said “There is clearly an opportunity to combine the commitment to support delivery of 30,000 affordable homes and additional funding to unlock up to 37,000 new homes in West London, Cheshire, Didcot and Cambridge with the brownfield first approach and the new mandate for biodiversity net gain in development. By using the concepts of sustainable remediation, biodiversity and natural capital early in the master planning process, there is a real opportunity for disused brownfield sites to provide a net biodiversity gain as well as communities that are liveable.”

Stating the need to build sustainability in to the heart of our economic model, the Chancellor set out the details of his 4-part sustainability plan that included the following initiatives:

Plans to offer airline passengers carbon offsets

The government plans to look into whether passenger carriers should be required to offer “genuinely additional carbon offsets” so that customers who want zero carbon travel have that option and can be confident about additionality.

Steve Barlow, Environmental & Health principal commented "We believe that government plans to consider whether passenger carriers should offer "genuinely additional carbon offsets" is an antiquated view. Business and the environment would benefit more from investment in emissions reduction projects, rather than offsetting, particularly in the transport sector, which is in real need of increased investment in research and development".

He has announced help for small businesses to cut emissions and energy bills, publishing today a call for evidence on the Business Energy Efficiency Scheme announced at the 2018 Autumn budget.

Steve also commented, "We welcome the Chancellor's call for evidence on the Business Energy Efficiency Scheme. We’ve been advising our large business customers for some time on how they can not only use energy efficiency as a lever for carbon reduction, but also their procurement power to move electricity supplies to 100% renewable or green gas."

The end of fossil-fuel heating for homes

The Chancellor has announced proposals to increase proportion of green gas in the grid, advancing decarbonisation of our mains gas supply and the government will introduce a Future Homes Standard, mandating the end of fossil-fuel heating systems in all new houses from 2025. Delivering lower carbon – and lower fuel bills too.

Mike Wheeler, head of energy UK, warned against oversimplifying the problem and the solution. “Often single solutions to complex problems are not the answer. They often assume a simplistic view of life and have unforeseen consequences and impacts. 

“Whilst we advocate increased use of district energy systems, the best way to decarbonise our energy network is through a mix of solutions that find alternatives to the gas grid, such as district heating and electrification. We must remember that currently, our heat demand is predominantly supplied by natural gas and it is gas that is also used to generate electricity in CCGTs, CHPs, industrial processes and heat for both domestic and non-domestic uses. But district heating and electrification certainly present opportunities to reduce our reliance on gas.”

Paul Steen, director of district heating, highlighted the complexity of the problem and of the potential solutions - “This echoes the Committee on Climate Change report published last month. Banning new homes from connecting to the gas grid in six years’ time is good news for new high-density developments, and even better where those developments include high-rise. With the government target of 300,000 homes to be built every year to meet our housing demand, this is a great opportunity to establish district energy as a core part of our energy mix, helping to deliver cheaper and de-carbonised energy to thousands

However, the economics are unlikely to be as favourable when looking at smaller and more rural new-build developments. In these circumstances, district energy or individual heat pumps will be more expensive to developers and consumers than gas which is currently relatively cheap to build and operate. For smaller, low-rise, rural developments, installing district energy systems or individual heat pumps could increase costs per house by around £3,000-£5,000 – the question is then who pays for this? 

Protecting our oceans and planet

The chancellor reiterated the need to continue to invest in protecting our planet. He noted the scourge of plastic waste defacing our planet and oceans. He also noted that for the first time in 60 million years, the number of species worldwide is in sustained mass decline, and highlighted the importance of the 1,500 species of pollinator that deliver an estimated £680m annual value to our economy.To ensure that wildlife isn’t compromised when delivering necessary infrastructure and housing, the government will mandate net gains for biodiversity on new developments in England to deliver an overall increase in biodiversity

Bram Miller, environment & health technical director commented “If all new infrastructure and housing has to deliver net gain, conceptually the large scale investment in infrastructure and housing should actually lead to potentially significant increases in biodiversity. If this policy does deliver on its promise, infrastructure, often considered as harmful to the environment, could actually be beneficial in terms of biodiversity. 

"It will be necessary, however, for the government and wider industry to seek to expand beyond biodiversity to environmental net gain. The promised National Infrastructure Strategy, and the consultation on infrastructure funding will also need to build in this thinking as much as possible because without strategic level considerations it will be more difficult to achieve the ambition of net gain.”

Biodiversity and economic growth

The chancellor also announced that the government will launch a comprehensive review of the link between biodiversity and economic growth. 

James MacGregor, environmental economist commented, “Ramboll has been supporting our clients to make sustainable decisions concerning biodiversity and commerciality for more than 70 years. We welcome this ‘sustainability stimulus’ by the UK government to integrate biodiversity (and hopefully the wider range of environmental and social impacts of projects) into how investment decisions are made. The UK remains a clear global leader in sustainable decision-making and Ramboll recently engaged with DEFRA on mandating net gain in biodiversity through the planning process. We look forward to the opportunity to work with our clients to contribute to the planned global review linking biodiversity to economic growth.”  

It was never going to be a statement that delivered for the many, but our environment certainly came out the winner this time.

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