Scoping The Challenge Of Reducing Energy Emissions In Our Homes

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The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University annually issues a ‘State of the Nation’s Housing’ report. A release ‘event’ is convened where the results are reported and discussed by stakeholders with different interests. Thanks to COVID, the event has been broadcast on line.

This year’s report makes a big deal of two things: the extraordinary rise in housing prices (both ownership and rental) and the rise in interest rates. The post is about the ‘Housing Challenges’ section of the report, particularly the comments about mitigating housing’s climate impacts.

The authors report that existing housing in the US contributes 20% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and that any effort to mitigate climate change will have to take this into account.

The report identifies some publicly supported programs that aim to reduce the carbon emissions in existing housing. Examples include help to purchase heat pumps, solar panels and windmills as well as completing building retrofits and providing guidance to choose a reliable contractor to do the work.

About 100,000 households in the US can participate in these offerings each year, with about 1/3 of the support reserved for households with low incomes. At this rate it will take more than 100 years to implement energy efficiency improvements in the existing housing stock.

In the United Kingdom, climate change is also on the minds of people, partly because of massive increases in the cost of energy. These impacts are being felt by everyone. But as one report from the UK notes, the effects are uneven.

People who rent their home from a private landlord are a case in point. These tenants pay directly for their heat and electricity. The homes are generally older and lack insulation, so the cost of heating in winter is very high. The landlord does not bear the impact of this cost and has no incentive to improve energy efficiency beyond a moral concern about climate change. Even when this is present, a landlord may not be able to raise the funds to pay for energy upgrades.

A second report, also from the UK, takes a look at what will be needed to carry out the scale of energy retrofit that is required to reduce emissions from the existing housing stock. has reported on a retrofit in a tenement in Glasgow that is more than 100 years old1.

The project proceeded slowly, partly to be able to speak definitively about what works and what doesn’t. How successful is refurbishing the building’s structure? What can be achieved by adding ‘stuff,’ such as heat pumps and solar panels?

The biggest energy saving comes from refurbishing the building, which reduces/eliminates air leaks. Buying and using a heat pump on its own makes very little difference. Refurbishing the building and replacing the heating system with a heat pump brings energy costs down to less than £100 per year. Currently, without changes, heating often cost hundreds of pounds per month.

In order to make any significant difference to climate change, widespread refurbishment needs to be on the table. A whole set of issues will have to be considered. For example, people will be obliged to leave their homes during the refurbishment. With careful planning, the time they will need to be away can be quite short. And in order to do refurbishment on a large scale, it is clear that a temporary displacement plan for home occupants will be a fundamental element.

To be clear, the study from Harvard University is not designed to deal with the level of detail discussed in the studies from the United Kingdom. Taken together though, the three reports demonstrate the scope of need, the scale of response, as well as the level of planning and coordination that will be needed to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions from the residential sector will be lowered.

Read more at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University: The State of the Nation’s Housing 2022

and at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence: Retrofitting the UK housing stock: what lessons from Scotland’s tenements? and How to combine action on housing retrofit with tackling health inequalities (and other injustices)


  1. Try: Energy Retrofits In Older Homes: A Case Study