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Unaffordable: The bigger picture of a sustainable society and why we can’t afford to delay

Credit: Adobe

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

3 min read Partner content

We cannot allow short term pressures to derail the UK's environmental progress towards net zero.

With the UK government’s environmental policies already establishing itself as one of the key policy battlegrounds between the major parties ahead of the next General Election, and as short-term economic pressures endure, we should not allow the climate debate to be seen as a trade-off between sustainability and affordability. Instead, government should champion a whole system approach to climate change that will improve the nation’s health, public services and encourage inward investment across the country.1

Take retrofitting for example. We have known since the Beveridge report in 1943 that living conditions have an impact on health: poor quality housing leads to poor health outcomes, estimated to cost the NHS £1.4billion a year, with at least £145m resulting from cold homes2.

Warmer housing can also prevent 35,000 excess deaths in winter each year. Retrofitting the UK’s housing stock should not be considered purely from a carbon emissions standpoint, but should be fully integrated into plans for building healthy and resilient local communities that meet the current and future needs of all citizens. We should be targeting an EPC-A rating for as many homes as possible, leveraging engineering expertise to deliver ‘deep retrofit’ for the 11 million eligible households3.

With local resilience comes national resilience, security and prosperity. UK consumers and businesses are paying among the highest energy prices in the world. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuel imports will drive down energy costs and increase the reliability of supply. This will encourage inward investment and spur economic growth across the whole of the UK.

To scale-up our renewable energy capacity at pace, the regulatory process for new developments should be streamlined to allow for joined-up thinking between energy providers, interconnector developers and local communities. Instead of only focusing on initial costs, we should be using technology to bring down the nation’s bills and drive economic growth in the long-term.

Developing local resilience and infrastructure will create hundreds of thousands of new sustainable jobs dispersed across the UK.4 Providing that a robust green skills pipeline is in place, these jobs will generate huge opportunities for people to take up skilled employment where they live. Moreover, improving resilience would increase our ability to respond to crises at the local level – for example, being able to draw on various EV stores to keep emergency services working, or using new technologies such as digital twins to rapidly identify faults in our infrastructure systems and respond to them.

We need to take a whole system, cross departmental approach to making the UK a more sustainable, healthy and prosperous place.

Now more than ever, we need policymakers to look beyond immediate pressures and maintain the UK’s commitment to engineering a thriving, net zero economy.


1. Future power system architecture (theiet.org)
2. Good Housing – Better Health” The Academic – Practitioner Partnership, 2016 https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-social-sciences/social-policy/SPSW/Housing/2016/good-housing-better-health-2016.pdf 
3. Scaling Up Retrofit 2050 (theiet.org)
4. National Grid – Journey to Net Zero, https://www.nationalgrid.com/stories/journey-to-net-zero/net-zero-energy-workforce 
5. Call for evidence on critical national infrastructure and climate adaptation by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (theiet.org)

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