How can local authorities achieve net-zero targets by 2030?

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© Tatsiana Hendzel

Niall Gibson, building performance expert at IES, discusses how technology such as the Virtual Environment and Digital Twins can help local authorities achieve net-zero targets by 2030

Acceptance of the climate emergency the world finds itself facing is widespread among those in power in the UK. Although a large amount of responsibility and expectation lies with the central government, local authorities also have the ability to make meaningful progress in the battle against climate change. Encouragingly, 300 out of the UK’s 404 local councils have declared climate emergencies, with many pledging to achieve net-zero carbon by 2030, 20 years before the central government’s 2050 commitment.

With 2030 less than a decade away, local authorities’ dedication to climate change now needs to look beyond pledges and declarations of emergency, although this is a great place to start and focus on how tangible change and progress can be made so that targets are met.

Barriers to overcome

The National Audit Office has reported that COVID-19 has created £6.9 billion of cost pressures on local authorities this year. The significant fiscal impacts of the pandemic mean that, in many cases, budgets have had to be reallocated and funds intended for net-zero commitments have dwindled.

As well as funding challenges, which are a long-standing blockade for local authorities, The Carbon Trust has identified that councils face a number of other barriers that need to be addressed and alleviated before net-zero targets can be met. These include a lack of national government support and guidance, targets that are set by policy, opposition to science, and a lack of understanding and expertise within authorities of the issues surrounding climate change and where gains can be made.

Where should local authorities be focusing?

One of the most significant carbon contributors that local authorities have control over is their building stock. The built environment accounts for more than half of total city emissions and around 40% of global energy-related emissions, so there is a clear need to focus on decarbonising here. By scrutinising buildings under their management, many of which may not have been built to modern energy efficiency standards, local authorities have the opportunity to drastically reduce emissions, making a real difference to their communities and the environment.

How to decarbonise the built environment

To effectively reduce emissions from their buildings, local authorities need to assess what they currently have and how they can improve it. The answer here is absolutely not to knock down existing buildings to replace them with eco-buildings, as demolition and new materials have incredibly damaging impacts on the environment.

The ongoing efforts to stop global warming are much more effective when armed with the power of technology, and this is especially the case in the built environment. We have seen rapid advancements in climate tech over recent years with several accurate, insightful and physics-driven products now on the market.

Digital Twins, for example, allow local authorities to see a version of their building portfolio in the digital world, underpinned by powerful physics simulation intelligence. This means that the virtual building operates exactly like its real-world counterpart so that buildings managers can assess problem areas in terms of energy inefficiencies and experiment with energy-saving measures before implementing them in real life at cost.

Once a local authority has a Digital Twin of its entire estate, systems such as smart lighting, integrated transport, greywater harvesting or district heat networks can be trialled virtually, so that the scale of their impact if implemented can be accurately gauged. This means that local authorities know which measures are the most impactful and with exact carbon savings gathered, pitching for funding for big-ticket items will be backed up with real, scientific evidence and data. Virtual testing de-risks high amounts of capital spending and allows testing to happen rapidly, something that would not be possible if each potential measure was installed and trialled in a building.

Performance modelling software also enables energy and performance analysis for the design and retrofit of buildings. This means local authorities can update existing buildings to be fit for modern use without going through the carbon-intensive processes of demolition and building from scratch.

Case study: Perth and Kinross Council

The impact of local authorities utilising this technology can be seen in a case study of Perth and Kinross Council. The energy management team used IESVE performance modelling software to make the buildings on their existing portfolio more energy-efficient, as well as monitor estate energy and carbon performance. The council conducted building condition surveys to establish where savings could be made and built models to perform concept design analysis. This meant that they could establish a strategy for improvement to help them in their goal towards achieving net-zero carbon, as well as see substantial cost-saving benefits.

Final thoughts

The implications of climate change are becoming ever clearer and more harrowing. Unpredictable, destructive weather events have raged across the world and the IPCC report published earlier this year has made it clear just how important it is to act as soon as possible.

COP26 will see world leaders gather to reemphasise the importance of lowering emissions and explore strategies on how best to achieve this. However, climate action does not need to rely on central governments alone, and local authorities must consider their current position and how to progress to achieve a rounded strategy in the climate battle.


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