We need a retrofit revolution to win the race to Net Zero

24 Jul 2023

The UK is now in a race to reach Net Zero by 2050 and this will undoubtedly be one of the biggest challenges we, as a country, will ever face.

It will require the contribution of everyone in society, and I’m certain that future generations will look back and ask, “how did you help? What did you do?”. I want to do what is in my power, through the businesses and organisations that I run, to have as good an answer as possible to this question.

As a country we’ve started to take some tentative steps forward, but a lack of skilled workers means we are already falling behind the trajectory that is required if we are to achieve that 2050 target. Time is not on our side. This is an urgent and important issue. I want to help fix it.

Nowhere is the UK’s green skills gap more apparent than in the retrofitting of our housing stock. The UK’s 28 million homes are among the least energy efficient in Europe, losing heat at rates up to three times faster than homes on the continent and generating over 20% of the UK’s emissions.

Currently, there is a serious shortage of retrofit training and recruitment pathways, meaning we are unable to even make it to the Net Zero starting line. Our latest modelling estimates that we are already significantly behind. Current rates of retrofit recruitment will need to triple if the country is to meet its 2050 target. If these rates don’t increase, then we won’t achieve the 17 million energy installations necessary to meet Net Zero until 2105 – 55 years beyond our current goal.

Put simply, there will be no Net Zero if we don’t develop and train a new retrofit workforce that can be put to work in every corner of the UK. This is why we have, today, launched Reed Environment, with an ambition to build one of the largest networks of green skills training providers in the UK. With an initial focus on retrofit, we want to turbocharge the recruitment pipeline for retrofit to almost double the current levels. This will make a major contribution to reinvigorating our drafty housing stock.

We cannot fix the UK’s retrofit issue alone. Residential energy efficiency policies have come and gone with limited success. This must change. We need better targeted policies from Government, but this responsibility cannot rest solely on the state’s shoulders. Private landlords and local authorities both have skin in the game and will have a big opportunity to drive demand for retrofitting at scale as they update aging dwellings and build new developments.

Whilst the retrofit challenge is not without its hurdles, it also comes with huge economic potential. Investing in people is every bit as important as investing in infrastructure when it comes to accelerating our transition. Whilst it’s easy to get wrapped up in exciting technologies, like carbon capture or floating offshore wind farms, closer to home there’s a scalable opportunity to create thousands of highly skilled jobs, and to spread the benefits these jobs will bring to people across Britain and to their local communities.

Net Zero is a generational challenge. We all need to find our unique way of contributing to this. I’m confident that if we can turn the tide on retrofit, we will make a meaningful difference for society and for the planet, county by county, town by town, home by home.

James Reed is Chairman of the Reed Group of companies. A version of this article appeared in The New Statesman.