Don’t forget the Nabers

In October 2019, the government said it would consult on a scheme to rate commercial and industrial buildings on their actual energy consumption and carbon emissions. Hywel Davies looks at what has happened since

Most car owners know the miles per gallon of their vehicle. We’re all used to energy labels on white goods. Yet the energy used in buildings goes largely without accurate measurement, unrated and undisclosed.

Energy labelling has improved the efficiency of appliances dramatically. In Australia, the National Australian Built Environment Rating System, Nabers, has transformed the property market over a 20-year period.

Before the 2019 General Election, the UK government told the Climate Change Committee that it would consult on a scheme to rate commercial and industrial buildings on their actual energy consumption and carbon emissions. In March 2021, after a pause while the world responded to the pandemic, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) consulted on Introducing a performance-based policy framework in large commercial and industrial buildings in England and Wales.

The proposals included the introduction of a system of rating building energy performance along the lines of the Nabers model. In the executive summary it stressed the importance of putting in place ‘clear and ambitious policies’ to ‘make sure the UK builds back greener [from the pandemic], unlocking thousands of skilled and resilient jobs’.

As the host of COP26 in November 2021, and the first major economy to pledge to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, there was some pressure on the UK to demonstrate that it was still committed to giving a global lead.

We were told that ‘delivering our commitments requires decisive action now, and building an economy that will thrive in the future can only be achieved by building an economy that is not reliant on fossil fuels’. How true those words have turned out to be.

Departments should publish responses to consultations within 12 weeks… 18 months on, we have neither a response nor an explanation

The consultation closed in early June 2021. According to the latest (2018) Cabinet Office guidance on consultations, ‘government responses to consultations should be published in a timely fashion’. Departments should ‘publish responses within 12 weeks of the consultation or provide an explanation why this is not possible’. Eighteen months on, we have neither a response nor an explanation.

With unprecedented fuel bills, the cost of supporting businesses and consumers (also voters in a democracy) through the energy crisis will be second only to the cost of pandemic support. Even before Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine, decarbonising the built environment in general – and commercial and industrial buildings in particular – was a significant challenge. There are about 1.7 million such buildings, of many types, shapes, sizes and ages. About 120,000 of them are larger than 1,000m2, and consume more than half the energy used by the entire commercial sector –and about a sixth of the total energy used in UK buildings.

A reduction in the energy used in these buildings would make a massive contribution to cutting the associated carbon emissions from these buildings and the risk of power cuts this winter. It would also make a long-term contribution to lowering demand for zero carbon energy, reducing the costs of the transition to a zero carbon system.

It is little short of incomprehensible that we still have no response from BEIS to the 2021 consultation. The proposals for a system that enables businesses to measure their actual energy use in operation and to rate their buildings accordingly are not new. The public sector has used Display Energy Certificates (DECs) for more than 15 years, and these were almost adopted for all larger buildings via an extension of the DEC scheme more than a decade ago, before being dropped suddenly.

Nabers has radically reshaped the property market in Australia. After being championed by the Better Buildings Partnership, CIBSE and others in the UK, we now have Nabers UK, a performance-based rating scheme for commercial buildings.

It offers the obvious means to rate large commercial buildings now. Currently a voluntary scheme, it could drive energy saving and the upskilling required to deliver and operate larger, energy efficient buildings effectively, across the commercial sector. What on earth are we waiting for, BEIS?