First emissions reduction plan heading in right direction on buildings

16 May 2022 by Jason Quinn

The long-awaited first Emissions Reduction Plan was published yesterday and media commentators are rushing to dissect it. I liked that the foreword describes the problem as also an opportunity: “a challenge present[ing] the single greatest opportunity we’ve had in at least a generation … It means warmer homes and lower household power bills.”

I have three initial observations, specifically on Chapter 12, the section addressing building and construction. 

First, the five headline points for this sector (verbatim): 

  1. Reducing the whole-of-life embodied carbon of buildings
  2. Accelerating the shift to low-carbon buildings
  3. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings
  4. Shifting energy use away from fossil fuels
  5. Establishing the foundations for further emissions reduction in the future.​​

Firstly, there are striking parallels between what the report sets out and the findings of a US research project on how to implement Passive House at scale, which we discuss here. The language is remarkably consistent. The US report was only released a few weeks ago so I’m not suggesting the MoE cribbed from it. If they did know about that project and got a heads-up on the findings, then good on them for doing extensive research. Otherwise, perhaps they came to the same conclusions independently, which is itself a good sign. 

Second, Chapter 12 is full of Passive House references—but not by that name. There is much discussion about “low-emissions buildings” and considering “whole-of-life emissions”. And “high-performance”. To my way of reading it, they are code words for Passive House or something functionally equivalent. I don’t actually care about the name, I want the outcome. It’s notable that the only case study in this whole section is Kāinga Ora’s Ngā Kāinga Anamata social housing project, which is on track to achieve Passive House Plus certification.

This plan covers just three years. It is but the first stage of a bigger transition—and that pace of change is going to get faster and harder. The H1 changes that will be mandatory by November are just the first easy steps toward reconstructing construction. The report clearly foreshadows much more substantive change to bring about greater energy efficiency and reduce embodied carbon. How we build and what we build with must and will change. 

Those Henny Pennys desperately lobbying to stall the enforcement of the increased H1 provisions will have to learn to live with change. I’ve heard MBIE officials are exasperated by being criticised for meeting with rearguard elements of the building industry opposed to the new H1 requirements. Listening to stakeholders is their job, they say. It reassures me the dinosaurs are not going to be successful. 

Elsewhere, Chapter 11 does mention the Warmer Kiwi Homes programme. And tucked away in Chapter 16 is a requirement to capture and destroy refrigerants when heating and cooling systems reach the end of their life. This is standard practice overseas and we should have adopted this already. Their GHG impact is significant and the cost to fix it is both tiny and easy to administer. Typically, the disposal costs are funded by a fee on the initial import of the refrigerants or f-gases.

The following extracts from the document are for my own future ease of reference.

The big picture for buildings on page 21:

  • lifting the quality of home and commercial construction with the use of sustainable and low-carbon, renewable materials…
  • requiring refrigerants to be captured and destroyed when heating and cooling systems reach the end of their life.”

Chapter 12 (page 227)

NB My comments are inside square brackets; emphasis also mine.

“Steps we are taking to reduce emissions have two objectives of reducing embodied and operational carbon.

Focus area 1: reduce the embodied carbon of buildings

Action 12.1.1: Progress regulatory change to reduce embodied emissions of new buildings

Action 12.1.2: Spark and foster innovation across the sector

Action 12.1.3: Realize cross-sector opportunities to reduce whole-of-life embodied emissions

[During this first plan, it will likely include introducing whole-of-life embodied carbon requirements to the Building Code, looking for innovations in the building sector (timber first) and minimizing construction waste/transport.]

Focus area 2: Accelerate the shift to low-emissions buildings

Action 12.2.1: Shift expectations and grow the market for low-emissions buildings

Action 12.2.2: Use the Government’s purchasing power to drive market change

Focus area 3: Improve building energy efficiency

Action 12.3.1: Amend the Building Code to improve new buildings’ operational efficiency

Action 12.3.2: Encourage and enable emissions reduction from existing buildings

[We need deep retrofits to maximise energy efficiency at some point but the temptation will be to take the easy wins—even if this locks us into lower reductions than we need.]

Focus area 4: Shift energy use from fossil fuels

Focus area 5: Establish foundations for future emissions reduction

Action 12.5.1: Work with Māori to identify new opportunities and support an equitable transition

Action: 12.5.2: Develop a strong data and evidence base

Action 12.5.3: Change behaviours of households and the sector

Action 12.5.4: Support workforce transition to ensure the sector can build for climate change

Action 12.5.5: Establish an enabling legislative framework

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