SO DID AN OBSESSION WITH GREEN TARGETS LEAD TO INFERNO?
STRINGENT government targets to slash greenhouse gas emissions were behind the decision to clad the Grenfell Tower.
The local council, Kensington and Chelsea, said ‘the energy efficiency refurbishment’ last year was a key part of plans to cut carbon emissions. A
document outlining the rationale for overhauling the building, drawn up in 2012, said that ‘improving the insulation levels of the walls, roof and windows is the top priority of this refurbishment’.
Kensington and Chelsea, in common with all councils in the UK, has been under huge pressure to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced.
Demands to cut emissions stem from the 2008 Climate Change Act. Brought in by Gordon Brown’s Labour government, it is widely acknowledged to be the toughest anti- climate change legislation in the world.
It commits the UK to a legally binding target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, from 1990 levels. To meet this target, local authorities are expected to do all they can to reduce energy use.
Even before the Climate Change Act became law, London’s Labour mayor Ken Livingstone was urging local councils to slash CO2 levels.
He set a target in 2007 for local authorities to cut the capital’s carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2025.
His successor, Boris Johnson, repeated the demand.
Stressing how important it was to make old buildings ‘greener’, a mayor’s report in 2013 states an ‘energy efficiency retrofit is essential to meeting the mayor’s targets’.
In 2016 Kensington council issued its Energy and Climate Change Action Plan which said the renovation of Grenfell Tower would ‘directly reduce carbon dioxide’, ‘reduce pollution’ and allow the council to ‘lead by example’.
As well as cladding, the refurbishment included making windows double-glazed and installing new energy efficient boilers and heat exchanger units in flats.
Another factor in the decision to refurbish the tower was aesthetics. A planning document for the regeneration says that ‘ the changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area’, in particular the Ladbroke Grove conservation site.
But questions have been raised about the safety of some of these changes. Fitting external cladding to a tower block may make it more ‘energy efficient’, but it can also be lethal. Plastic insulation materials such as those used at Grenfell Tower are flammable. Witnesses say the cladding caught fire ‘like matchsticks’.
And experts have drawn attention to other fires around the world – from Dubai to Australia – which have been made worse thanks to flammable cladding fixed to the outside of buildings.
But not only that: ventilation ducts behind the cladding help to create a ‘chimney effect’, meaning the fire spreads rapidly upwards.
Then, when the insulation material burns, it starts falling off the building in large – making it impossible for firefighters to access the area. When it was built in 1974, Grenfell Tower had a bare, non-combustible concrete exterior.
There have been plenty of fires in tower blocks over the years, but none finished in concrete has ever suffered a fire on the scale of that seen on Wednesday. So why are we turning relatively fireproof build- ings into death traps? The answer is that the practice is just one of many dangerous follies – not least the official endorsement of diesel cars whose emissions kill thousands of people a year – caused by the public policy agenda which elevates climate change above virtually all other considerations.
The Climate Change Act means the Government is forever scrambling for ways of trimming a few per cent off emissions. Never mind that these ill- conceived policies can have severe adverse effects. In the rush to make old tower blocks conform – through improved insulation – to the energy performance of more modern buildings, the risk of cladding worsening a fire has been overlooked, despite multiple warnings. The 2012 ‘sustainability and energy statement’ for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower discusses how the cladding will help the building exceed the insulation standards laid out in the Government’s Code for Sustainable Homes and something called ‘EcoHomes’ standards.
Yet it contains nothing assessing fire risk. This problem can be traced back to the ‘Decent Homes Standards’ introduced by the Blair government in 2000.
These standards decreed evermore stringent environmental rules. Yet there were no official standards on fire risk – just a duty on the landlord to conduct a risk assessment, which was then supposed to be checked with the fire brigade. Between 2000 and 2010, £22billion of government money was spent on the Decent Homes programme, on refurbishments like the one at at Grenfell Tower.
Since then, a further £1.6billion has been spent bringing the remaining homes up to the required environmental standards.
As a result, quick fixes to improve the energy performance of old buildings have become an earner for cladding companies, which can charge £3 million for covering a building the size of Grenfell Tower.
Theresa May has ordered a public inquiry into the fire, and the events of Wednesday morning may be revealed to be one of the biggest scandals of recent years.
‘Caught fire like matchsticks’ ‘Finished in brutal concrete’