Built Environment: Leeds maps a route to a greener urban future

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay (Demo)

As a major part of the built environment, housing has a critical role to play in helping Leeds realise its vision of becoming a carbon neutral city in little more than a decade

By Northern Housing Staff

SOMEDAY, the residents of Leeds may be using hydrogen – rather than natural – gas to heat their homes; it’s one of the more speculative proposals in a new ‘roadmap’ that sets out how the city could become carbon neutral by 2050 – or sooner, if it can pull it off.

Earlier this year, the city council declared a climate emergency; now it’s taking a ‘no-holds barred’ look at the ways it can help to avert global heating caused by its carbon emissions. The ‘roadmap’, published by the Leeds Climate Commission (LCC), presents a whole gamut of ways it can do its bit for the planet.

Some of the measures it sets out are quite common; others are achievable, if not so cost-effective. And some are hovering a little further out in the feasibility field – such as hydrogen burning domestic boilers – although not to the point of serving as science fiction.

Furthermore, they cover pretty much every aspect of modern urban life: from energy generation and its efficient usage; transport and logistics; manufacturing and construction; to consumption and lifestyle. No surprise, either, that the built environment – including newbuild and existing housing – forms a major part of the package.

“Tackling climate change is an unprecedented global challenge and one which we know that many residents care passionately about solving,” said Councillor James Lewis, the council’s executive member for resources and sustainability.

“Leeds City Council is already investing in – and benefiting from – greener technologies such as cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles, better home insulation, solar panels and low-energy LED street lighting. We are committed to doing more to tackle climate change and, in the future, the council will consider the carbon impact of every decision it takes.

“As one of the biggest cities in the UK, cities like Leeds have the potential to collectively make a big difference. That’s why having an open, inclusive and substantive city-wide conversation – to raise awareness, build enthusiasm, and inspire action – is so important.”

The upshot of the carbon roadmap is that Leeds is capable of becoming a carbon neutral city by 2050. What’s more, if it really knuckles down, it could achieve the 2030 ambition the council set for itself when it passed its climate emergency motion. Of course, it won’t be easy.

For a benchmark, the Leeds carbon roadmap uses a report published in October 2018 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that by 2030 we could run out of time to avert the worst impacts of climate change unless urgent action is taken to keep rises within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. This means Leeds must cut its 2005 level of emissions by 70% by 2025; 85% by 2030, and then to zero by 2050.

“The good news is that it is technically and – to a large extent – economically possible for Leeds to become a carbon neutral city, and to meet the carbon reduction targets in line with the global targets set out by the United Nations,” said Andy Gouldson, professor of environmental policy at Leeds University, who chairs the commission.

“However, those measures will only take us so far. We need to go further and employ a range of innovative measures to close the gap – and if we step up the challenge and do all those, we could close that gap and get to zero by 2050.

“The council’s white paper proposal is even more ambitious and wants the city to work towards being carbon neutral by 2030. We’ve demonstrated that if Leeds as a city is prepared to rethink the way we use energy, move around, and consume some key products, this could be doable.”

The built environment has a big role to play in all this, especially if you consider that the roadmap cites a 30% reduction in the use of steel and concrete to help achieve that 2030 target. But other measures, such as expanding the city’s district heating network to more domestic and non-domestic buildings, the switch to hydrogen fuel, and ensuring that all new buildings are net zero carbon are all potential or essential ingredients.

When it comes to housing, the roadmap prescribes much that is already familiar to providers. These are the more straightforward and cost-effective measures that can be applied to the city’s housing stock: retrofit, loft insulation, windows, more efficient boilers, and some small-scale renewables.

“Nothing too radical,” as Gouldson says. Dig deeper into the carbon targets, however, and more stretching measures are required. These include “deep retrofit” of the city’s existing housing stock – including those hard-to-treat pre-1919 properties – to get them to near passivhaus standard; something Gouldson concedes is “challenging technically and environmentally”.

Meanwhile, all new housing would be constructed to passivhaus standards of thermal efficiency.

Gouldson stresses that the carbon roadmap is about presenting options and not a strategy; as Councillor Lewis said above, the purpose is to stimulate discussion among stakeholders and the wider public, before something more concrete is put into place.

“The city conversation we’re having over the summer is going to review the desirability of the different options,” Gouldson said. “It’s important that the public has a chance to have its say before the roadmap is locked down.”

With or without the roadmap, housing associations have already been doing their bit to improve the performance of their stock; as much to reduce energy bills for tenants as carbon emissions. Together Housing, for example, which has around 2,400 homes in Leeds and the wider West Yorkshire area, is two years into a five-year plan to invest £37 million in renewable heat and power. The target is a 5% reduction in carbon by 2020, which is the equivalent of 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per property per year.

“Since 2011, we have installed over 1,700 solar PV systems on our properties – five megawatts in total – saving over 1,100 tonnes of CO2 per year,” said Patrick Berry, managing director of the housing group’s Together Energy division.

“Currently, approximately one third of the electricity generated is used by tenants, the rest is returned to the grid. We are now trialling battery storage, which will store the power for tenants to use as and when they need it.”

Meanwhile, Ali Akbor, chief executive of Unity Homes & Enterprise, commended the Leeds Climate Commission for its work. “It is further evidence that Leeds is a forward-thinking city which is rightly keen to adopt a partnership approach in tackling the public policy challenges we face,” he said. “As a housing association with its roots very firmly in Leeds, Unity is already playing its part.

“We are halfway through a six-year affordable warmth strategy which incorporates a clear commitment to reducing our carbon footprint. To date, this has included using renewable technologies on a number of our new development and refurbishment projects.

“All of our newbuild properties are also constructed to a minimum Code 3 standard. But there can be no room for complacency and, as we begin the process of refreshing our affordable warmth strategy, Unity is reviewing its working practices to find additional methods of reducing carbon output.”

There’s always more work to be done, of course, and Gouldson is clear that housing associations have a key role to play – and to do so in a socially valuable way.

The commission’s next piece of work will be looking explicitly at the city’s social housing stock – council and housing association owned – to develop a roadmap specifically for the sector.

“I think the role of the social housing sector is a priority area,” he said. “They are not officially on board yet, but we as a city recognise that it’s a major opportunity to engage more and to build capacity more effectively. We really need them on board. They can be a real innovator for all sorts of elements.”


This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine, #5 July 2019


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