Decarbonising Scotland’s owner-occupied homes – making it happen

In the lead up to Scottish Housing Day 2022, Gillian Campbell from the Existing Homes Alliance considers one of the biggest sustainability challenges – decarbonising Scotland’s owner-occupied homes.

Homes produce 13% of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions and the case for improving the energy efficiency of our homes and decarbonising our heating has never been stronger.  The cost-of-living crisis is pushing more people into fuel poverty, energy security is at the forefront of political agendas and the window for taking action to tackle climate change is closing fast.  

Arguably the most significant challenge will be decarbonising 1.6 million owner-occupied homes, which make up 62% of Scotland’s housing stock.

Scotland’s Heat in Buildings strategy is aiming for 1 million homes to have zero emissions heating by 2030. This means significant scaling up of zero emissions heating installations, focusing on rolling out heat pumps and heat networks. 

Fossil fuel boilers will be phased out from 2025 in off-gas grid areas and 2030 in on-gas grid areas, and support for fossil fuel systems is already being phased out from Scottish Government programmes.

Energy demand must be at the heart of the move to zero emissions heating, so there is a real focus on fabric first – insulating homes to reduce the amount of energy needed to heat them.

A new regulatory framework will be developed which will mean homes need to reach the equivalent of EPC C at the point of sale, change of tenancy or major refurbishment from 2025.  And there will be a backstop meaning most homes will need to reach this by 2033.

Currently, only 42% of Scotland’s owner-occupied homes are EPC of C or above, compared to 56% in the social rented sector and only 40% in the private rented sector.  

So we know the scale of the challenge, and we have a clear vision of where we are trying to get to – but what are the solutions?

In May this year, the Existing Homes Alliance (EHA) published a research report by Dr Catrin Maby and Louise Sutherland that proposes the introduction of two standards:

Firstly, a fabric efficiency standard – expressed in kWh/m2/yr and defined to ensure homes can be heated more efficiently with lower flow heating systems.

Secondly, a zero-emissions heat standard – requiring fossil fuel boiler phase-out at replacement through Building Standards and/or full phase-out through restrictions on the sale, purchase or use of fossil fuels for heating.  

The research recommends a specific approach for multi-occupancy buildings, like tenements, with a fabric efficiency standard which applies to the whole building.

But regulation is only one part of the jigsaw puzzle and won’t work unless accompanied by an effective framework of practical and financial support.

Sitting alongside the regulatory framework we need mechanisms that enable people to invest in their homes – without this, those who can’t afford the upfront capital investment or can’t easily access the right kind of advice and support, will be left behind.

We need a strong communications and engagement campaign – raising awareness and knowledge of options and making energy efficient, warm, low emissions homes an aspiration and priority for people.

An Energy Saving Trust research project for the EHA suggests that an effective enabling framework could include a comprehensive one-stop-shop approach, combining a national digital platform for accessing advice, information and financial support, with locally delivered retrofit project management services.

Intensive face to face support must be available for those who need it.  This should build on existing trusted, locally based support services and installers where they already exist, and new services where there are gaps.

Post-installation support is also vital to ensure homeowners are getting the best from their newly improved, low or zero emissions homes, and easy access to redress if things go wrong.

Scotland is in a strong position to achieve net zero homes, with a clear strategy and real ambition.  But there is much to do, and if we’re serious about decarbonising a million homes by 2030 (only eight years away) we really need to get moving.