Accelerating the net zero transition: the case of whole house retrofit

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


Following the advice of its Committee on Climate Change, the UK became the first G7 economy to adopt a legally binding target of reaching net zero GHG emissions by 2050. Achieving net zero requires radical and transformative action in a short timeframe with no prior precedent for an energy system transformation at this scale and speed. How transitions can be accelerated is a key academic and policy question. Although the window for achieving the 1.5 degrees C goal is small and rapidly closing, there remains some optimism among researchers that acceleration can be achieved.

Markard et al. (2020) identify five challenges to the acceleration of sustainability transitions that policy efforts need to address: 1) whole systems change, 2) interaction between multiple systems, 3) decline and resistance of existing industries, 4) major changes in consumer and social practices and 5) the increasing complexity of governance. My research will apply this novel framework for understanding acceleration to the case of whole-house retrofits of UK homes. The UK's climate change targets will not be met without the near-complete decarbonisation of the housing stock. Emissions from buildings, which account for 17% of UK GHG emissions, must reach net zero in 2050, but reductions have stalled since 2015. As with the net zero transition more generally, domestic retrofits need to happen on a mass scale and in a short timeframe: all 29 million UK homes need to be upgraded to an Energy Performance Certificate of at least C in the next 10-15 years. This brings to focus the fact that accelerating the transition to net zero is at its core a social and not just a technological or economic transformation.

Apart from the vast emissions reductions potential, retrofitting homes offers significant co-benefits, such as reducing energy bills, tackling fuel poverty, major savings for the NHS, creating jobs, and lowering the costs of the energy transition. Despite the obvious benefits, UK government policy has so far failed to achieve the mass uptake of residential retrofit needed. In order to reach decarbonisation targets, the necessity of a comprehensive 'whole-house' approach to residential retrofit has been asserted. This involves the adoption of multiple measures such as insulation, draught proofing, ventilation, low carbon heating systems and electricity microgeneration like solar PV, treating the entire home as a system rather than a set of disconnected components.

With reference to the challenges laid out by Markard et al, this approach would require: 1) coordination in the diffusion of innovations within households (insulation, heat pumps, microgeneration); 2) search for synergies between heat, power and transport systems; 3) Active phase-out of technologies such as gas/oil boilers and associated industries; 4) Major increase in consumer engagement and changed social practices in net zero homes; 5) Coordinated and adaptive governance across scales. For those involved in whole house retrofit, this would represent a step-change in the way that actors frame, approach and deliver retrofit interventions. In particular, operationalising the theory of acceleration implies the creation of sustained funding streams, the development of supply chains and adequately skilled workforces, quality control of retrofits, and a shift in public engagement approaches. For local authorities, identified elsewhere as key actors in sustainability transitions, this will require reflexive learning around the systems, practices, and routines of retrofits.

The research will aim to:
a) Advance theory on sustainability transitions acceleration through examination of the case of whole-house retrofit.
b) Deliver practical empirical insights on how acceleration of transitions is enabled or constrained.
c) Create meaningful impact through collaboration with key stakeholders engaged in whole-house retrofit governance


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2579284 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2021 30/09/2025 Barbara Cieszewska