Thursday, February 22, 2024

How behavioural changes impact carbon reduction

Mateen Sedenu, Senior Energy & Carbon Analyst, Salix Finance.

Renewable energy and other approaches to achieving sustainable development are increasingly taking main stage in discussions about the future of UK industries. By drawing on the latest scientific evidence, industry leaders are recognising the enormous pro-business and pro-growth opportunities that decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy can unlock. At a wider scale, the Government has set out the policies and proposals it deems necessary for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy considering its commitment to a net zero target that reduces the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 100% from 1990 levels by 2050.

What is lesser communicated are the ways in which Government can encourage people to change their behaviours, and perhaps even more ambiguous are the extents to which social and behavioural changes can impact carbon reduction. There are various demand-side solutions which are well-documented. Anyone who has started their journey to becoming carbon literate will likely be aware that shifts towards a more sustainable diet, less flying, circular economy principles and other behavioural changes can contribute to reducing an individual’s carbon footprint. However, behavioural impacts on the UK’s decarbonisation goals are deeper than appears on the surface. Focus should also be directed to enhancing decarbonisation projects in the public sector, whose diverse workforce are largely untrained in sustainable practices and often not involved in the project delivery transition from construction to operation.

One pathway to net zero is represented through the government’s various grant and loan schemes that support decarbonisation of the public sector and housing. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has continually refined the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme through its phases to support the aim of reducing emissions from public sector buildings by 75% in 2037, compared to a 2017 baseline. The scheme is strongly focused on decarbonisation and supports low carbon heating systems and enabling measures such as energy efficiency technologies. On the surface, an approach which prioritises proven technologies that can be installed in a physical form to produce tangible results appears to be robust, versatile and seems to hold out on the promise of delivering public sector net zero targets. However, are we doing enough to embed behavioural change? Are we missing a trick?

Picture a school successfully applying for a grant scheme to decarbonise their heating and install additional energy efficiency measures. They’ve been able to replace their end-of-life gas boiler with an air source heat pump and are expecting to significantly reduce their annual carbon footprint. There is also an expectation and reliance on the system to reduce consumption and improve energy use; the end-goal of this is contributing to net zero and lowering energy bills which cause a strain on many public sector organisations. However, bad habits come in wide ranging forms in the context of sustainable practices. From occupants keeping office lights on outside normal operational hours to a caretaker failing to clear an air source heat pump unit of debris such as leaves and dust which impedes airflow. These acts, whilst on an individual basis are likely unintentional and due to lack of expertise through a failure to educate building users in sustainable practices, can raise consumption and energy requirements to operate the heating system. Even if the installation of Building Energy Management System (BEMS) provides visibility of consumption, specialist knowledge is required to analyse the results and implement an appropriate, effective solution; something that many organisations’ energy managers (a broad term that can encompass an unqualified schoolteacher or a highly skilled building engineer) lack.

The efforts that have been made towards decarbonising the public sector as part of the net zero strategy have put us on the right track. However, the concentration on technical fixes should not negate policy focus on behavioural changes which are enacted through collaboration between building designers, their clients and the future occupants and operators of the buildings undergoing sustainability transformations. Currently, many public sector decarbonisation strategies are far removed from the occupants of the buildings that they serve.

There are instances where decarbonisation projects are introduced into buildings and holistic thinking about whole energy use is initiated. Without an approach that engages building occupants and operators throughout the project delivery process, these behaviour changes are often related to individual adjustments of everyday habits. Some schools have integrated successful projects into the curriculum. A chemistry lesson that covers how the flow and return temperatures of the heat pump powering the school’s Science Block are regulated by the laws of thermodynamics – in place of a textbook’s generic diagrams – can be more engaging and effective in creating a carbon literate cohort aware of the changes that can be made to adopt better sustainability practices. However, these initiatives are difficult to quantify in terms of impact and they place a large burden on lesser qualified staff to deliver such teachings.

To go one step further and ensure the direct engagement of personnel who will be the occupants and operators of sites after the installation of decarbonisation improvements, this will require specific frameworks that provide an understanding of how best to manage a site transitioning to low carbon heating as this can enhance a building operator’s understanding of best practices and foster the efficient use of new technologies. The concept of ‘soft landings’ refers to approaches which enhance the transition from construction to operation, specifically creating the environments that optimise operational performance. An important consideration is to ensure that this transition is embedded throughout project delivery, instead of at the handover point (or in many cases not at all). Despite the Government Soft Landings Framework launching in 2016, there has been slow adoption of these practices to improve both quality and operational performance of building projects from inception to completion.

There is inherent uncertainty in predicting levels of behavioural and subsequent system change in the future. Nonetheless, decarbonisation projects in the public sector must incorporate best practice approaches which include embedding concepts such as ‘soft landings’ to ensure that sustainability impacts are enhanced and public funds for carbon reduction projects are used most appropriately.

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