Why Net Zero Carbon and Why Now?

Written by Lord Kerslake in 2020

Former Chair and member of the House of Lords



As a long-standing client working with Max Fordham, Peabody is pleased to contribute to this timely guide on how to meet sustainability challenges in the built environment.

Why Zero Carbon, And Why Now?

The short answer to the first question is that building and construction are responsible for a significant portion of the world’s carbon emissions, contributing more CO₂ emissions per year than aviation. Ongoing operational emissions from buildings that need heating, cooling, light and air obviously continue to add to the carbon footprint of the built environment as well.

Why now? Well, fundamentally this is about halting and reversing the damage being done to the planet. It will take international political willpower and coordination of course, and firm commitments at national and regional level to enable industries like ours to make the leap to a better way forward. The imperatives of “Building Back Better” and creating a greener, more sustainable economy as we recover from the COVID pandemic may give added impetus to support industries to successfully transition to net zero operations.

A Very Short History of Change

Peabody has an interesting history in respect of leading or adapting to changes in housing design and construction. Improvements in sanitation, safe play spaces and infection control were embodied in designs and management of our early estates in the late 19th Century. We were pioneers.

In the 1930s, like everyone else, we had to respond to the economic realities following the great depression. Where low construction costs were paramount, we built plainer blocks and the earlier advancement of providing separate bathrooms in our homes was temporarily abandoned – bringing the bath into the kitchen instead.

Many years later, in 2002, our 82 home BedZed development was the first large-scale eco-community in the UK. Again, it was a pioneering approach, but was perhaps too far ahead of its time and therefore not widely replicated.

These examples span 100 years and illustrate some of the challenges our industry faces in getting to net zero. Innovation is possible, but progress can easily be buffeted by circumstance and economic realities and it needs momentum from wider movements or events for traction and uptake by the mainstream. The costs and risks associated with fundamental change are significant.

A Shared Commitment

Progress will therefore need a shared commitment. As with all change, there will be early adopters, advocates and experts; others who are not in a position to take the lead but will wait to see how the sustainability market and operating environment evolves; and there will be some for whom it is not a priority.

This industry is an eco-system of clients, designers, building contractors and sub-contractors who all need to think and act in a new way. This means setting up and driving more mature networks of regulation, finance, knowledge, labour and materials with the expertise and ability to deliver in that new way.

Clients such as housing associations, councils and large private developers have the opportunity to help drive positive change by embedding sustainability in projects and stating their spending strategies, priorities and preferences.

Government action and funding to incentivise better environmental performance in buildings can also help move those willing to drive the changes in the industry. Regulation too will be vital in driving better standards and behaviour. The strategic application of improving regulation and standards over time is already creating new jobs, products and services throughout supply chains, and I am confident that this will continue to deliver progress.

All this needs to be done whilst ensuring a just transition for those impacted by changes and particularly with an eye to affordability – so that only those people who can bear the initial or ongoing costs of change, for example from gas to cleaner electricity, will be asked to do so.

Alongside this, forward thinking design practices sharing expertise, and seeking new ways to deliver coordinated, cost-effective, and deliverable sustainability solutions can create a virtuous circle in which we all move toward a net zero future together.

This guide is an important contribution to the journey.