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Recycle and reuse buildings to curb climate change, report insists

Image credit: Gilles Desjardins | Unsplash

Buildings need to be "recycled and reused" rather than demolished to reduce the UK's carbon emissions, a new report suggests.

Historic England said the built environment – including the construction industry – accounts for around 42 per cent of the UK's carbon footprint.

The non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, said in its 'Heritage Counts' report that knocking down buildings causes the loss of the embodied carbon dioxide (CO2) resulting from their construction, use and demolition.

The report, an annual audit of England's heritage, suggests that buildings should instead be upgraded and reused to save energy. It claims that by "thoughtfully adapting" an old building in the right way, CO2 emissions could be reduced by more than 60 per cent.

Duncan Wilson, Historic England's chief executive, said: "Recycling plastic bottles is a normal part of our daily lives, but reusing our existing historic buildings would be a much more powerful way to improve our environmental impact.

"Despite this, reusable buildings are demolished every year and new buildings, which require a huge amount of carbon to build, replace them."

Compared to refurbishing a traditional Victorian terrace property, a new building of the same size produces up to 13 times more embodied carbon, which equates to about 16.4 tonnes of CO2, Historic England said.

Its report, put together on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum, also called for a lower rate of Value Added Tax (VAT) to refurbish buildings. At present, there is a 20 per cent VAT charge to refurbish a property, compared with a 0 per cent charge for new builds.

These rates "financially incentivise" developers to completely demolish existing buildings and build new ones, Historic England said.

There are more than 200,000 empty homes in England, while "thousands" of historic buildings are neglected or not used to their full potential, it said.

If half of all pre-1919 residential buildings were responsibly refurbished between 2021 and 2031, carbon emissions would be reduced by 39.6 million tonnes by 2050 – the equivalent of three million flights from Heathrow to Dublin – the report claimed.

Ben Cowell, director general of Historic Houses and chairman of the Historic Environment Forum, said: "Upgrading and renovating existing buildings means we can control the carbon expended through new construction activity, while ensuring a future for the heritage all around us.

"Since the vast majority of our built heritage is cared for by private owners, a reduction in the VAT rate would help to incentivise best practice in repair and maintenance."

Changes in the built environment will play a key role in tackling climate change. Better insulation of existing homes is one straightforward solution, with the UK committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050, relative to 1990 levels. Energy used in UK homes currently accounts for about 20 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions and three-quarters of that comes from heating and hot water.

In May 2019, a former Conservative environment minister said the UK needs to stop building “crap houses” as part of a plan to eliminate carbon emissions in the UK.

Meanwhile, technology is finding new ways to improve the environmental and emissions performance of core building elements and materials. For example, a transparent film has been developed by MIT engineers that can be placed over windows to reflect up to 70 per cent of the Sun’s incoming heat, while scientists at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) in Lithuania have formulated a concrete made from fly ash and other industrial waste products that could lower the carbon emissions associated with large construction projects.

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