Building for a zero carbon future

Would you like to live or work in a warm, draft free, healthy space that is easy and cost effective to heat?

Transforming our leaky buildings to make them clean, green, healthy and affordable to heat is a big project, but we have all the knowledge and tools we need to do it – and it offers us many additional benefits. Here is a selection of good ideas on how we can transform our existing buildings and build new ones in much more energy efficient ways, so we have better places to live and work, and support the shift to a zero carbon future. Continue reading “Building for a zero carbon future”

Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen

It’s now almost ten years since CAT’s first Zero Carbon Britain report was published. Today zero carbon is becoming a much more commonly accepted goal – but we urgently need to make it happen! Paul Allen introduces a new report, due out in spring, that looks at the barriers to getting to zero and how these can be overcome.

On 5 October 2016, the threshold number of signatories to the Paris Agreement was achieved, enabling it to enter into force on 4 November 2016. This historic agreement is underpinned by a global consensus of science that clearly recognises the need to reach zero carbon. Fortunately, a wide range of detailed scenarios and real-life practical projects clearly demonstrate that we already have the tools and technologies needed to get us there.  Continue reading “Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen”

“Facilitative dialogues” – Paul Allen at the UN climate talks

Marrakech is turning out to be a different kind of meeting from Paris, but that does not make it less important, in fact quite the opposite.  If Paris was about creating the framework, Marrakech is about deciding the rules so that goals are achieved.

paulearthThe most common phrase of the day in almost every session I have attended is “increasing ambition”. This can be done by turning up the guilt or it can be done by increasing inspiration – showing both that zero is achievable and that there are additional benefits in doing it. Of course, the key advantage of the latter approach is that it is less divisive and works better to unite communities across the globe.

So many people want to accelerate the transition to the zero carbon economy. People around the world are taking action to install solar and wind solutions, block coal and oil infrastructure and protect forests. People want a different future and are creating it. This determination has grown stronger and louder since Paris.

Marrakech must ensure that this increase in ambition results in plans that match the global goals. So this is why so many need to talk about increasing ambition, as the 1.5C goal really can’t wait. However, just like Paris, Marrakech is driven by incredibly complex negotiating processes. And, thankfully, just like Paris, it has attracted an amazingly bright and highly motivated collaborative global tribe inside and outside of the official process. Working amongst them constantly inspires me, as they get to grips with it all and work out how best to influence the process, flagging up the key issues and phrases.

Perhaps the most important phrase to get to grips with at this point is “Facilitative dialogue”. Due to begin in 2018, this cop22-monday-7thdescribes the official COP process of ratcheting up ambition. It is a chance for countries to take stock of how close they are to achieving the key long-term goals of peaking emissions and achieving net zero emissions early in the second half of the century.

“Facilitative dialogues” are designed to inform the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – the pledges that each country makes to show their contribution to tackling climate change. Once countries have a clearer idea of the direction of travel, they will have the motivation to either update or communicate their new NDC by 2020.

It is an incredible feeling to join these astounding people in this process, everyone I have spoken to about our Zero Carbon Britain work sees a clear role for more positive scenarios in increasing ambition for NDCs. This will be the core topic of the first session run by the American Pavilion facilitated by the World Resources Institute – I will be there to see how it goes, and to offer America a hug!

Once again climate has become the focus of global diplomacy

Up-beat delegates and observers from across the globe are now arriving in a surprisingly wet Marrakech for the 2016 UN Conference of the Parties (COP22) – Paul Allen reports.

cop22-monday-7thIn many ways, COP22 will be under a lot less pressure than its Parisian forerunner. It will not be a high-profile event, which allows space for higher quality, more detailed conversations. Coming into global force last Friday, the Paris Agreement established both the commitment and the framework for dealing with climate, but although many here are happy with the “well below 2C” goal, the means to actually deliver it require a lot more complex research and negotiations. So COP22 is really aiming at fleshing out the detail. Some key questions being explored include:

How should we track progress?

How can countries increase ambition?

How can poor nations be supported?

How does all this link to adaptation?

And not least…

Who will be the next US president – and how will that affect progress?

So perhaps the most important over-arching task for everyone participating at Marrakech is sorting out the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) from COP21.  These form the basis of the Paris Agreement; they are the pledges that each country laid out at last year’s negotiations, showing their contribution to tackling climate.

The first and foremost challenge is that, cumulatively, the current pledges fall well short of achieving COP21’s “well below 2C” temperature goal, and many are waiting to see if this will be an open public discourse or an elephant in the room.  But, in addition, the NDCs are very diverse in format, as countries have been working to very different baselines – which makes it hard to quantify their cumulative impact. So at COP22, delegates will begin demystifying this process by creating a more uniform framework for future NDCs.

The ‘global stocktake’ is one of the key elements of the COP process, designed to deal with the recognition that current NDCs will not meet the “well below 2C” temperature goals. Stocktakes regularly assess collective progress towards meeting the goals, and are part of the ratchet mechanism that is designed to raise nations’ ambitions.  Worryingly, the first one does not take place until 2023 although there will be a test run, called the “facilitative dialogue”, in 2018 – we need to make sure this sets a good pace.

I feel confident we will see progress during COP22. Zero Carbon Britain has been invited to the COP to present robust scenarios showing that we can get to zero carbon, to support those working to raise ambition. Despite the rain, the atmosphere feels very positive this afternoon as I sit observing the first meeting of the technology framework negotiations. If the speed with which the Paris Agreement was ratified is anything to go by, there is commitment. This early ratification means that once-distant deadlines have been brought forward to drive forward action during these coming 10 days.

Ask an expert: eco refurbishments

Want to refurbish your home in a sustainable way? With over 25 years’ experience, including as tutor on CAT’s Eco Refurbishment course, Nick Parsons has some great advice – here are his top tips.

1. Make it air-tight.

Stop unintentional ventilation (this involves designating an air-tightness layer – and sticking to it!) and design in sufficient intentional ventilation. For a whole-house retrofit this will almost certainly be whole-house mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR), but for incremental retrofits, or those with less stringent air-tightness targets, passive ventilation may suffice.

2. Insulate, insulate, insulate!

Don’t automatically believe that Building Regulations standards of insulation are enough. They aren’t bad, but in many cases we should be aiming for far better. If you have the space – and the money – Passive House levels of insulation (U values of 0.15W/m2K or less) and air-tightness (less than one air change per hour for the refurbishment EnerPHit standard) can dramatically reduce your heating requirements and massively improve comfort.

External insulation of solid walls will make your house look a bit different. Ducks are optional.
External insulation of solid walls will make your house look a bit different. Ducks are optional.

3. Insulate externally! (Unless you can’t…)

External insulation of solid walls, if detailed properly, puts the entire building fabric inside a warm ‘tea-cosy’. But it does make your house look different.

4. Risk-manage your insulation

If you have to insulate your solid walls – or sometimes even add insulation to your cavity walls – internally, excellent detailing is critical. Insulating walls internally makes the room warmer but makes the walls themselves colder and more at risk of interstitial condensation – condensation within the new thickness of the wall, behind the insulation. This can rot joist ends and other embedded timbers, and maybe grow mould. Cold walls may also suffer from deterioration of the masonry due to frost damage.

If you insulate internally, make the whole process a documented risk management exercise – identify the risks, identify control measures and document how you will implement them. In certain circumstances, consider embedding sensors and monitoring equipment in hidden timbers so that you can know if moisture levels become critical. The expense may be off-putting, but it will be a great deal less than the remedial works if you have inadvertently shortened the life of your house by doing what you thought was the ‘right thing’.

In general the use of ‘breathable’ (water-vapour-permeable) insulants such as wood-fibre or cork may reduce risks, but very careful detailing is still required.

Greater risks exist with non-breathable insulants, but if they are installed with extreme care, the risks may be capable of being ‘managed’ and minimised. If you are installing them yourself, take advice from someone with a lot of experience. If someone else is installing them for you, are they experienced with such boards? Do they fully understand interstitial condensation and vapour control layers (VCLs)? Have they read the manufacturer’s installation instructions?

5. …and consider its environmental impact

Materials such as plastic insulation – made from crude oil – are high in embodied energy (the energy, including transport, used to get the product from raw material to the merchant’s shelf), but look at the units used. If the measure is weight, a heavy bit of ‘green’ insulation may be higher in embodied energy than a much lighter piece of ‘non-green’ insulation.

You may in any case wish to avoid wherever possible materials made from petrochemicals.

But ‘environment’ may mean more than ‘the world in general’. What about your immediate living environment? You may feel better in a room lined with vapour-permeable, moisture-buffering wood-fibre than in a room lined with petrochemical-based insulation.

6. Minimise thermal bridging

dscf3495You may believe – perhaps because your builder or consultant told you – that having low (good) U values guarantees good performance but thermal performance may be let down by weak-points in the insulation layer. Typically this would be where partition or party walls interrupt the insulation layer, where walls turn into windows or doors, or where internal insulation has to be thinner to accommodate fixtures or fittings. In practice, your U value may not be as low as you believed it to be.

The picture on the left shows: on the left, a wall prepared for insulation to ‘return’ on to internal wall to cloak the thermal bridge; in the middle, Pavadentro wood-fibre board prior to plastering; and on the right an existing brick wall with a lime ‘parge coat’ (air-tightness layer) to reduce air-leakage through voids in the brick wall.

 

7. Minimise thermal by-pass

Thermal by-pass, or ‘wind-wash’, occurs when cold air is allowed to get to the ‘warm side’ of the insulation. This can best be explained in two scenarios:

The first is a loft-conversion. The eaves areas are cold voids. The stud walls to the room (which are built off the floorboards) have been insulated to a good standard but there is only 100mm of insulation between the 150mm floor joists.

The ventilation air which enters at the eaves vents (a good ‘howling gale’ to keep all the timbers healthy) can blow directly under the floor of the heated bedroom, providing instant cooling!
Small pieces of plywood or similar board, sealed at all perimeters, placed between the joists at the edge of the floor on both sides of the bedroom will cure the problem. ‘Plugs’ of quilt insulation placed in the gaps will not do such a good job (as quilt insulation is generally air-permeable), but will be better than nothing. Once these gaps have been sealed, the insulation should in any case be increased to approximately 300mm.

The second scenario involves insulation to the sloping ceilings above an attic bedroom, carried out, as the law requires, by roofing contractors when re-roofing the house.

The house was sold and the new owner decided to remove all the attic ceilings. All but about six of the sheets of insulation fell out from between the rafters. What this tells us is that, while the insulation was in place, the cold air in the ventilation gap between the insulation and the slates was able to migrate to the warm side of the insulation, rendering the insulation almost useless.

8. Plan to do it all!

Many insulation plans are carried out incrementally, perhaps as other work is required, or when a room needs comprehensive re-decoration or (externally) when the cost of re-pointing an elevation can be avoided and put towards the cost of externally insulating that elevation.

When planning your works, ideally plan to do the whole house, even if you know it is going to take you 10 years to achieve it. I’m 29 years in and starting to re-do the internal insulation using better materials and methods than were available in 1987! Plan how your individual works are going to ‘knit together’ so as to limit thermal bridges, where condensation and mould may otherwise occur.

Above all, you don’t want your works – undertaken with the best of intentions – ultimately to shorten the life of your house.

image1About the author
Nick Parsons has worked in energy-efficient and sustainable building and renewable energy for over 25 years. He provides consultancy and project management services to individuals, small businesses and community organisations and is a regular tutor at CAT and elsewhere. See www.sustainablebuilding.org.uk for details.

CAT courses
The next eco-refurbishment course with Nick takes place from 4th to 7th November. For more information and to book, please visit http://courses.cat.org.uk/ or call us on 01654 704966.

Off-grid water works

Do you know where your water comes from? You probably just turn on the tap and there it is. Flush the toilet and off it goes. Most of us have no idea where our water comes from, or where our sewage goes.

At CAT we do things differently. We’re completely off-grid when it comes to water – we have no mains water supply or sewage treatment. So we have to think very carefully about how we use this precious resource.

Here’s how our water works.

 

Reduce, reduce, reduce!

We start by minimising the volume of water that we use. Low flush toilets, waterless urinals and compost toilets help by reducing the amount that gets flushed away. Low flow taps and water efficient shower heads mean less goes down the drain. Which of these things could you do at home?

So what’s left? We need it for drinking water, for hydro electric turbines and to power our cliff railway. Let’s focus on how we get it clean enough to drink, and how we treat the wastewater so it can be safely returned to the river that flows past CAT.

 

Good enough to drink

The CAT reservoir, which is nestled in the hills behind the visitor centre, holds most of the water used on site. It was created to directly power the machinery for the old quarry on which CAT is built. The other sources of CAT’s water are rainfall into the lakes, ponds and rainwater butts across the site.

The water is siphoned from the middle of the reservoir, using atmospheric pressure to force it up through a pipe. This method doesn’t use a pump, which ensures that the system is low-energy.

Water is then piped down the hill to CAT. Water to be used for drinking passes through slow sand filters to remove pollutants. While this process effectively removes pathogens, the water is later treated by ultraviolet (UV) purifiers to finish the job.

 

Managing the wastewater

Greywater and foul water from CAT flows into settlement tanks, where solids are separated from liquids. Solids are composted whilst liquids are passed into a series of reed beds which sit below the CAT site.

The reed beds clean the water through a combination of the micro-organisms in the reed beds, and the physical and chemical properties of the reeds.

After being passed through these beds, the now clean water is returned to the river below CAT, where it is joined by the water that has powered our hydro turbines, driven the cliff railway and heated a building through a water-source heat pump. All of it borrowed – and made to work very hard – on its way from the mountains to the sea.

 

Over the summer, we’ll be giving free guided tours of the CAT water systems so you can get a close-up look at some of these systems. Take a look at our events calendar for details of what’s on when.

If you’d like more in-depth info, the three courses mentioned above run back-to-back and can be booked as a package. Book two or more of these and we’ll give you 10% off. See courses.cat.org.uk for details, or call us 01654 704966.

Sustainable Building Courses at CAT

One of the great things about the Centre for Alternative Technology is the sheer quantity of architectural and design features around the site.

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View from the Wigloo
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The funicular Cliff Railway
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Eco cabins

Indeed, it’s a rare treat to see modern design juxtaposed with the rugged Welsh landscape.

All of our buildings, old and young, demostrate how ecological design pays attention to both form and function.

These buildings serve as practical exhibits which show ways that ecological architecture and design take care of both the environment and wellbeing.

We run a number of courses which are connected to design and architecture,  varying from short courses on timber frame construction to a Professional Diploma in Architecture.

For more information about our short courses: https://courses.cat.org.uk/sustainable-building

and graduate level courses:

The EU and the environment

What would UK environmental policy and practice look like if we voted to leave the EU? With the referendum fast approaching, we explore the possibilities.

Once known as ‘the Dirty Man of Europe’, the UK has cleaned up its act in recent years thanks, in large part, to the influence of the European Union. If the UK votes to leave the EU, how might this impact environmental policy and legislation in the UK? And how would the UK’s exit affect environmental protection in the remaining EU countries?

leavesEU countries have worked together over decades to build one of the most comprehensive packages of environmental legislation in the world, including habitat protection, pollution control and climate change mitigation. Much of the UK’s environmental law has been developed through its membership of the EU, so it’s important to explore the potential impacts of a Brexit scenario.

A large number of EU directives have helped to enforce standards in areas as diverse as water quality, air quality, fish stocks, waste disposal, hazardous substances, radioactive waste, recycling, construction, habitat and wildlife protection, GMOs, animal welfare and climate change.

Whilst some aspects of EU policy (such as the Common Agricultural Policy), have been damaging to the environment, most EU environmental policies have resulted in a raising of standards across EU member states. The EU-wide nature of these policies makes them more effective as many of the issues are trans-boundary (water, air and wildlife all move across boundaries). Single nations are also less likely to raise standards unilaterally due to fear of competitive disadvantage. EU-wide legislation creates a level playing field that countries are more willing to sign up to.

In the event of a ‘leave’ vote, there’s no clear consensus over which exit scenario the UK would follow but, irrespective of what the final arrangement might be, Brexit would result in some important changes:

  • Loss of the UK’s voice in EU decisions affecting the environment.
  • In international negotiations, such as the UN Framework Conventions on Climate Change, the UK would contribute independently. This would allow us to steer our own path, but we would lose influence over the EU position, which holds more sway at a global level owing to its size and economic importance.
  • The Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy would cease to apply and we would need to find alternatives. The consequences of this change for land and marine management could be significant.

 

Options for the UK and Europe

Other impacts would be dependent on the type of relationship negotiated between the UK and the remaining EU Member States. There are a number of options, but it’s uncertain which option would be pursued by the UK government.

One option in the event of an ‘out’ vote is that the UK joins countries such as Norway and Iceland as part of the European Economic Area (EEA). In this scenario, most EU environmental legislation would continue to apply, with notable exceptions being the Bathing Water Directive and the Birds and Habitats Directives (see box). If the UK stayed within the EEA, we would retain some routes into EU policy debates, but could no longer vote on decisions affecting EU legislation.

In relation to industry, EU environmental law covers two broad areas: ensuring industrial processes don’t cause undue environmental damage and ensuring products entering the EEA meet agreed standards. Examples of the former include limiting emissions and setting broad standards for air and water quality; the latter includes restriction of hazardous substances in products and ensuring suitability for recycling. Most of this legislation would continue to apply if the UK left the EU but remained in the EEA.

 


Bathing water and habitats

The Bathing Water Directive was the main reason that the UK introduced improved water treatment from the 1970s onwards. Prior to this, the seas around the UK were some of the dirtiest in Europe, thanks to the government policy of ‘dilute and disperse’. In the event of the UK leaving the EU, this directive would cease to apply. Although it is unlikely that the UK government would take the unpopular step of weakening standards in this area, there would no longer be pressure from Europe to keep our seas clean.

Similarly, the Habitats Directive would no longer be in force under any of the likely Brexit scenarios. Enacted in 1992, this protects habitats and important species of animals and plants. The UK government has made clear its frustration with some aspects of the Habitats Directive, particularly where infrastructure developments have been affected. There is therefore real concern that UK habitats and wildlife could receive less protection outside of the EU.


 

Other options include a negotiated bilateral agreement with the EU, with some access to the Single Market, or the UK could withdraw completely from the Single Market.  In both of these scenarios, different types of legislation would be affected in different ways.

treeEU regulations are applied directly in member countries so would no longer be applicable in the UK if we chose to leave the EU and not join the EEA. It would then be up to the UK government to decide on UK legislation in these areas.

EU directives are not directly applicable in UK law. Many of them have been transposed into UK law so would continue to apply until changed by the UK parliament even if we left the EEA. Other directives have been implemented under the 1972 European Communities Act, so new legislation would have to be enacted if this act was repealed.

New UK legislation could of course increase, maintain or reduce the level of environmental protection. However, the current government’s actions and promises to ‘cut the green crap’ do not bode well. It’s worth noting that EU states are currently allowed to adopt ‘more stringent protection measures’ than EU legislation requires (albeit with some limitations), yet the UK government has chosen to adopt a ‘no gold plating’ approach – sticking with the minimum standards – while complaining that many of those standards are unnecessary ‘red tape’ for industry.

Even where the UK is no longer bound by EU environmental legislation, companies exporting to the EU would have to comply with EU industry standards. The EU is unlikely to allow equal access to the market for products developed under lower environmental standards where this might have implications for competitiveness.

In or out?

Overall, there’s still much uncertainty over what impact an ‘out’ vote might have. Before its involvement in Europe, the UK did not have a strong record on environmental protections, but in some areas it’s unlikely that we would move backwards. If we remain in the EEA then many protections remain.

However, evidence of the government’s dislike of ‘red tape’ and ‘green crap’, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment against the interests of big business, does give cause for concern. Environmental protection is a long-term investment, often overshadowed by headline-grabbing short-term issues, and in the age of austerity it’s easy to see how certain environmental considerations could become neglected without the safeguards offered by the EU.

In the next few weeks, the voices for ‘in’ and ‘out’ will clamour ever more loudly for your vote – you can use this chance to ask questions about their vision for the environment, putting the issues you care about at the heart of the debate.

 


Climate change

Both the EU collectively and individual members states sign up to new treaties on climate change.
Climate targets are implemented through the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), covering emissions from power plants and aviation, and the Effort Sharing Decision (ESD), covering emissions from elsewhere. Together, these policies govern overall totals for emissions, and EU legislation determines how allowances are allocated.

Other policies that help reduce emissions within the EU include legislation on transport and energy, including rules on energy efficiency and renewables, and emissions targets for car manufacturers. Energy efficiency rules include the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and the Energy Efficiency Directive. Targets are set for the percentage of energy that should come from renewable sources, plus targets and regulations on biomass.

EU commitments agreed at the Paris climate change talks are currently being developed into a package of new measures, including revisions to ETS, new renewables targets, changes to energy efficiency legislation, and the possibility of the inclusion of legislation on carbon stored in land and forestry.

So what would be the impact of Brexit on EU climate policy? The UK, along with other North-West Member States, has pushed for an ambitious approach to targets, whilst states in the South and East of the EU have been more reluctant. The UK has been particularly influential in determining targets for 2020 and 2030. UK support has been for market-based mechanisms such as ETS over targets for particular technologies. Under a Brexit scenario, EU policy may therefore become less ambitious and more technology-focused in its targets.


 

Read more

There are a few useful reports that cover these issues in more depth:

The EU Referendum and the UK Environment

The potential policy and environmental consequences for the UK of a departure from the European Union

Brexit – the Implications for UK Environmental Policy and Regulation

 

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This is an extract from Clean Slate Summer 2016. To receive Clean Slate once a quarter and stay up to date with news and veiws from CAT, sign up for membership today.