Reuse rather than demolish buildings to help tackle climate change, urges report

Buildings need to be “recycled and reused” rather than demolished to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, a new report suggests.

Historic England said the built environment – including the construction industry – accounts for about 42% of the UK’s carbon footprint.

Its Heritage Counts report said knocking down buildings releases embodied carbon dioxide (CO2) which is stored inside them and contributes to climate change.

The report, which is an annual audit of England’s heritage, suggests that buildings should instead be upgraded and reused to save energy.

It claims that by “thoughtfully adapting” an old building in the right way, CO2 emissions could be reduced by more than 60%.

Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s chief executive, said: “Recycling plastic bottles is a normal part of our daily lives, but reusing our existing historic buildings would be a much more powerful way to improve our environmental impact.

“Despite this, reusable buildings are demolished every year and new buildings, which require a huge amount of carbon to build, replace them.”

Compared to refurbishing a traditional Victorian terrace property, a new building of the same size produces up to 13 times more embodied carbon, which equates to about 16.4 tonnes of CO2, Historic England said.

Its report, put together on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum, also called for a lower VAT rate to refurbish buildings.

At present, there is a 20% VAT charge to refurbish a property, compared with a zero percent charge for new builds.

These rates “financially incentivise” developers to completely demolish existing buildings and build new, Historic England said.

There are more than 200,000 empty homes in England, while “thousands” of historic buildings are neglected or not used to their full potential, it said.

If half of all pre-1919 residential buildings were responsibly refurbished between 2021 and 2031, carbon emissions would be reduced by 39.6 million tonnes by 2050 – the equivalent of three million flights from Heathrow to Dublin – the report claimed.

Ben Cowell, director general of Historic Houses and chairman of the Historic Environment Forum, said: “Upgrading and renovating existing buildings means we can control the carbon expended through new construction activity, while ensuring a future for the heritage all around us.

“Since the vast majority of our built heritage is cared for by private owners, a reduction in the VAT rate would help to incentivise best practice in repair and maintenance.”

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