The transition to a sustainable economy will involve everyone, and if that is to extend all the way to being carbon neutral, every building in Britain will need to play its part. That includes heritage properties, of which Britain has many. They are often old and inefficient, difficult to heat, and with laws about what you can and can’t do to improve their performance.
It would be easy to argue that they should be considered exceptions. If anyone can still have a high carbon footprint in 2050, it should be a castle. But that’s not the view taken by the associations that care for Britain’s heritage. They recognise that climate change is a threat to heritage buildings and landscapes, and that they have an interest in leading the way on reducing emissions.
Take Edinburgh Castle. Historic buildings don’t come more iconic more Edinburgh Castle, dominating the hilltop and overlooking the city. It’s a huge draw for tourists, the centre of the city’s vibrant cultural life, and a case study in energy efficiency in older buildings. Edinburgh has plans to be carbon neutral by 2030, and the castle has every intention of honouring that commitment.
Not that this is a new idea for the castle’s management. Work on Edinburgh Castle’s footprint began in 2010, at which point it had the same carbon emissions as 300 typical Scottish homes put together. It’s not an easy site, being composed of 27 different buildings of varying ages, some dating back to the medieval era. Work has involved rationalising heating needs, and adding new and more efficient gas boilers. Wool-based insulation has been packed into attics and rafters to keep the heat in. Low energy bulbs were fitted throughout and by 2016, carbon emissions had fallen by 40%.
This has all paid for itself in energy savings. At the start of the process, the castle had an energy bill of over £400,000 a year. That has now fallen by a third, quickly paying off the initial investment.
Edinburgh Castle isn’t done. Last week Historic Environment Scotland (HES) announced that it was going to remove all gas heating from its buildings. That will mean a new round of changes for the castle, presumably switching to electric heat. Scotland has a surplus of renewable energy, so electric heating makes sense. Infrared heating is often considered to be good for buildings as it keeps them dry, so that might be a technology they can turn to in future. HES plans to move away from gas heating across all its properties by 2028.
I’ve picked Edinburgh Castle because HES was in the news last week with their gas announcement, but there are many other examples. Reducing emissions is a big conversation within Britain’s heritage organisations. The National Trust aims to reach net zero by 2030, reducing its emissions and planting 20 million trees to more than cover the emissions it cannot prevent. The Church of England synod recently voted to be carbon neutral by 2030 too, which will be an epic challenge for historic churches.
I find the leadership of Britain’s heritage organisations very encouraging. One might expect them to be hesitant and conservative, but they recognise that climate change is a threat, and that reducing their emissions is part of their remit to protect our culture and history. And given the wide membership of organisations in this sector, they could play an important role in advocating for a low carbon future.