Net zero lighting

How can we do more?

Net zero is the single most important priority for the construction industry if we want to meet the government’s 2050 target. Right now, the pathway feels decidedly rocky. The UK Green Building Council (UKBCG) tells us that the built environment contributes around 40% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions when the entire building, infrastructure, and vehicle footprint is considered. Amongst all the cold hard facts, this figure particularly resonates and hammers home the scale of what’s required from our sector. It’s clear that we’ve got to throw everything we’ve got at the race for carbon neutrality.

In the lighting industry, progress has been made to ensure that energy-efficiency is a clear priority. We’ve benefited from game-changing advancements in LEDs and control gear that have allowed us all to optimise energy usage in our schemes. It’s great to see the industry pulling together in the same direction, but as we reach the upper limit on what LEDs can practically produce in terms of Lumens per Watt, we need to ask ourselves where we can go next and how we can do more. The answer undoubtedly lies in how we tackle the more complex topics of circularity and carbon reduction.

We’ve benefited from the introduction of the TM66 Technical Memorandum from CIBSE and SSL – a standardised assessment tool that helps lighting designers categorise luminaires in the context of the circular economy. TM66 is a great leveller for the industry. It puts transparency at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and will hopefully, in time, ensure that circularity is a non-negotiable part of the design and specification process. More recently, the lighting community welcomed the publication of the TM65.2 Embodied Carbon in Building Services: Lighting methodology from CIBSE – a tool for assessing the amount of embodied carbon associated with a light fitting. It’s still too early to understand what influence TM65.2 will have, but we should take consolation in the fact that the lighting industry is focused on improving our knowledge and processes.

Trends in Lighting Design 2023 Circular Economy Infographic

Retrofit should be our priority.  

Moving to a retrofit first way of thinking won’t be easy, but we must get better at it because this is where the big gains will be made. The embodied carbon outlay of creating an entirely new structure often dwarfs the potential operational carbon savings that you get with an energy-efficient new build. And whilst it may be tempting to take a piecemeal approach to this, deep retrofit is where we should be aiming, because gradual upgrades may incur higher carbon emissions.

The lighting design sector has a role to play here to shift the emphasis away from recyclability to how we reuse and repurpose high-value luminaires and lighting controls. There’s still a lot to be done because we haven’t moved far enough away from recycling and even that is far from straightforward. We also need to do our bit to dispel the idea that new buildings are more desirable by getting better at reuse and working together to tackle the issues that currently make this a time-consuming exercise where ingenuity is often required. We should be proud to prioritise retrofit.

We need to make waves not ripples.

At Nulty, we’ve been asking ourselves how we can move beyond steady improvements and do more as a practice. Earlier on in the year, we addressed the circularity of our design and specification process by setting ourselves the target of achieving a 2 and above TM66 score for 50% of specified luminaires – a metric that we will assess after six months and hopefully improve on. It’s been a big learning curve and we’re already seeing the knock-on effect this has had on our time, but it’s time well spent. Moving to a circular economy will require hard work to collate the data and creativity to achieve the aspiration.

Circular Economy Lightbulb Graphic Green Energy Sustainable Lighting Designers Nulty

Making a similar commitment to carbon reduction feels like a more difficult challenge. We’re only just starting to grapple with this subject in a meaningful way and it’s going to take time to gather and analyse the data before we can accurately track and understand all the emissions produced during the life cycle of a product. Whilst it feels like a daunting task, we’re steadfastly determined to incorporate a threshold for TM65.2 in our design and specification process. We want to pledge a similar commitment to carbon neutrality and make our small contribution to the race to net zero.

Fundamentally, we need to force a shift where every stakeholder wants to go the extra mile to achieve a net zero project and see this through to the bitter end. Often, we see bold aspirations tempered throughout the design and construction process, because the most straightforward option isn’t always the right solution. It doesn’t help that when we try to work out where the big gains can be made, we learn that this varies from project to project. Retrofitting an existing building is always going to be more complex than producing a new one. Taking a highly sustainable scheme from approved concept to site is potentially going to be more expensive and time-consuming. But we can’t allow aspirational clients to be held back by design teams who haven’t got the knowledge and tenacity to deliver net zero. Conversely, aspirational designers shouldn’t be limited by clients that talk the talk but aren’t prepared to follow through.

In the lighting world, a collective and concerted effort has been made to move forward, but we exist in an echo chamber and need to take the conversation outside the industry. It wasn’t long ago that the government awarded tax reliefs for LED products that contributed to reducing energy costs, as an intervention to support widespread adoption. We need a similar incentive at government level to shift things up a gear and it will take the community to come together again to help this along. Without this level of intervention, we’ll never make the giant strides required to accelerate our path to net zero.