Can net zero housing agenda in Wales tackle housing inequality?

Can net zero housing agenda in Wales tackle housing inequality?

Dr Vickie Cooper

headshot of Dr Victoria Cooper


The Open University in Wales has partnered with Tai Pawb on a research project which seeks to explore the

relationship between social equality, decarbonisation, alleviation of fuel poverty, and climate change.

It will focus on how people living in social and private rented housing are impacted by net zero housing policy and practice, intended to combat climate change.


The Welsh Government is legally bound to reduce carbon emissions by 95% by 2050. A significant part of its net zero planning focuses on the decarbonisation of Wales’ housing stock – approximately 1.4 million dwellings. It is estimated that residential buildings account for 10% of carbon emissions in Wales, with the dominant source of emissions being combustion related, such as space heating, hot water and cooking. In the Net Zero Carbon Budget plan (2021-2025), the government sets out three main routes for achieving decarbonisation of housing stock along these targets:

  1. Making households more energy efficient
  2. Phasing out carbon and fossil fuel heat sources
  3. Cultural and behavioural change


More recently, the government opened consultation on The Just Transition Framework, which outlines the necessary changes needed and guidance toolkits for achieving net zero. Consultation is open until 11th March 2024.


Housing inequality and net zero

The challenge for us as researchers is to examine how the net zero housing agenda can help tackle inequality for marginalised and economically disadvantaged households. It will explore the mechanisms in place for informing and capturing the experiences and voices of marginalised households, and to what extent are they are protected as part of the net zero housing agenda. Low-income groups are most likely to be living in the least energy efficient households and, due to poor housing and poor energy efficiency, are at a far greater risk of experiencing poor health conditions (for example, respiratory, muscular skeletal, cardiovascular and pulmonary related conditions). Modest assessments estimate that 155,000 households experience fuel poverty in Wales, whereby people have insufficient income to heat their homes, and / or spend a higher portion of their income on energy bills than average, due to inefficient heating system and poor insulation. Since increasing the energy price cap in April 2022 and subsequent cost of living crisis, fuel poverty has become a systemic problem and the government is relying heavily upon decarbonising housing programmes to eradicate it:  .

decarbonisation of the housing stock will not only help the Welsh Government to realise its ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but to eradicate fuel poverty in Wales.


Low-income groups would traditionally be accommodated in the social housing sector. However, in recent decades, the sharp decline in social housing stock and tandem rise in Buy to Let mortgages (allowing homeowners to rent their properties), has seen the private rented sector become the dominant housing tenure for both middle-income and low-income groups including people facing homelessness.


Retrofitting, decarbonisation and energy efficiency

Across the housing sector, retrofitting is prioritised in policy as the main route for achieving energy efficiency and for connecting households to cleaner energy supplies (and phasing out fossil fuel consumption therefore). In 2020, the government rolled out phase 1 of its ‘optimised retrofit programme’ (ORP) in the Social Housing Sector, to make homes ‘fabric ready’ for decarbonisation and improve energy efficiency. Through the support of ‘Leasing Scheme Wales’, launched in 2022, phase 2 of ORP was rolled out in the PRS, though not at the same scale as in the social housing sector. Phase 3 of ORP has also been rolled out to owner-occupied households.


Retrofitting should lead to energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions. Both the UK and Welsh governments have set targets EPC “C” for all homes by 2030- 35. Initially, the Welsh government set targets for the social housing sector to achieve the highest energy efficiency rating, EPC grade ‘A’, by 2033. But this target has since been dropped, and now the social housing sector is required to meet a minimum rating of EPC ‘C’ by 2030 and social housing organisations are told to set their own strategic pathways for achieving EPC ‘A’ ratings.


Currently, decision-makers and households rely upon metrics for calculating carbon reduction, or carbon savings, to assess the impact of retrofitting. But there is much debate with the science and engineering community that current modelling of energy-use is likely to overestimate the amount households spend on household heating – meaning that carbon reductions will also be overestimated. This is known as ‘the prebound effect’. It is furthermore anticipated that retrofit housing programmes which are likely to improve households’ health and comfort as well as reduce energy bills, has the potential to encourage increased consumption of energy supplies. This is known as ‘the rebound effect’, which has the potential to counter the forecasted energy savings of retrofitting, and furthermore raises the need for a transformative shift in the existing infrastructure as well as a cultural shift if net zero is to be achieved.


The Research

Funded by the Open Societal Challenges Programme at the OU, we are working with Tai Pawb to connect academics and communities to tackle some of the most important societal challenges of our time. As well as examine how net zero housing agenda can help tackle inequality for marginalised and economically disadvantaged households, we are working with expertise in Science, Technology and Engineering, to develop a scientific metric for retrofitting, which measures the Combined Carbon-Comfort (CCC) impact on social housing tenures, as opposed to simply focusing on the carbon savings.


The long term aims of this project are to:

  • Define and promote an equitable response to the climate crisis for marginalised and economically disadvantaged communities.
  • Engage with communities to understand their concerns about climate change as well as their worries about the implementation of policies intended to combat the climate crisis.
  • Draw on STEM expertise, to develop a scientific metric for retrofitting for measuring the combined carbon savings
  • Contextualise the impact of decarbonisation measures alongside longer-term inequalities facing households
  • Inform the implementation of existing policies and future policies in Wales, and compare Welsh context with other nations (Scotland being the most obvious comparison).