A Climate Emergency: What does it mean for Planning

22nd January 2020

The Madrid Climate Change Conference in December 2019 identified rises in average global temperature and its implications as the defining issue of our time. At the same time, the UK Government was in the throws of a General Election and, whilst the main issue centred around BREXIT, climate change was also one of the key matters debated. Indeed, the UK Government has already committed to reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels under the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Act has since been amended to require the UK to be ‘net zero’ in greenhouse gases by 2050, thereby strengthening the requirement.

Although 2050 seems like a long way off, it may yet prove to be an ambitious target or indeed not ambitious enough. What is clear is that society’s reliability on fossil fuels needs to radically change. To that end, the impacts of development cannot be ignored. Certainly, the implications of new development on climate change are wide-reaching and range from how homes are heated to the impacts of nationally important infrastructure, such as the third runway at Heathrow or HS2.

Evidence of where the planning system is heading can already be found in the NPPF, which takes a relatively strong position on climate change. Amongst other things, it states that the planning system should help to:

‘shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, minimise vulnerability and improve resilience; encourage the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings; and support renewable and low carbon energy and associated infrastructure’.

Whilst in some case, this will take time to filter through to new plans and policies, as a matter of routine, Local Planning Authorities are already asking for the inclusion of cycle storage and electric vehicle charging points in developments and similar measures to make them more sustainable. Indeed, those types of measures have been with us for a long time. However, we will need to extend beyond these relatively simple means, if we are to go carbon neutral and improve the climate resilience of buildings.

As a result, the first tranche of adopted Plans requiring residential developments to achieve zero carbon homes and commercial developments to conform to BREEAM, excellent standards are now emerging. For some developments, this may simply mean making them more energy efficient through a combination of better insulation and window construction, the greater use of solar panels and technologies such as air and ground source heat pumps and decentralised community heating systems.

However, even some of these solutions may no longer be accepted, if we are to be truly carbon neutral. Decentralised community heating systems for example, which can include combined heat and power gas plants, still rely on fossil fuels and so emit harmful emissions. Certainly, in London, we are already seeing the GLA wanting developments to move away from this as a means to heat and power homes.

Achieving truly carbon-neutral development is not necessarily easy and, in some cases, will not be possible. We can, therefore, expect to see the greater use of carbon offset funds, allowing Council’s to collect payments from developers to meet any carbon shortfall from new development. However, be warned that this should not be seen as an alternative to having to design low carbon development from the outset, but rather an addition to built-in measures.

We are also witnessing the start of a national energy revolution with renewable energy capacity tripling since the early 2000s, as we move towards a national emergency system that relies less on fossil fuels and more on wind, solar, biomass and hydropower. This may help lower the burden on individual developments in the long term, but, regardless of climate change, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels at all levels is more essential than ever.

The result is that climate change is increasingly influencing the drafting of planning policy and the planning system is on the front line for its role in delivering more carbon-efficient developments. The shift towards making all development carbon neutral therefore marks a key change for the future of development.

For more information please contact Senior Principal Planner, Jonathan Jarman.

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