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Climate Hustle

Factcheck: Grenfell Tower fire and the Daily Mail’s ‘green targets’ claim

Posted on 19 June 2017 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Leo Hickman at Carbon Brief

Three days after the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in west London, much of the media coverage of the tragedy is now focusing on the possible causes.

A wide range of possible contributory factors has been cited – lack of sprinklers, lack of adequate fire escapes, no central fire alarms, etc. But there has been much speculation that the cladding, added to the building during a recent refurbishment, could have helped the fire to spread rapidly up the exterior of the building.

A number of newspapers have focused their investigations on possible cost-cutting during the renovation, as well as prior warnings by residents that safety standards were being ignored. For example, the Times today has a frontpage story highlighting that “contractors could have acquired the fire-resistant version [of the cladding used] for less than £5,000 extra”. The refurbishment of the building cost £8.6m.

However, the Daily Mail is making its own claim. On its frontpage it says there are “three lethal questions” that need answering; the first of which is: “Were green targets to blame for the fire tragedy?” It adds that “experts”, which the paper doesn’t name, are asking whether the cladding was “installed simply to meet environmental targets”.

On page eight is a full-page commentary from Ross Clark, sitting under the headline question: “So did an obsession with green targets lead to inferno?”

Clark, who has published various climate sceptic articles and written a book attacking regulations he believes to be “strangling” the UK, begins the article:

Stringent government targets to slash greenhouse gas emissions were behind the decision to clad the Grenfell Tower, official documents show.

The local council, Kensington and Chelsea, said ‘the energy efficiency refurbishment’ of the tower last year was a key part of plans to cut carbon emissions.

And the 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 local councils in the UK, has been under huge pressure to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced in the borough.

Demands to cut CO2 emissions stems from the 2008 Climate Change Act.

He adds:

As well as cladding, the refurbishment included making windows double glazed and installing new energy efficient boilers and heat exchanger units in flats.

Plans to refurbish the tower were drawn up years before – again with a central aim of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2012 the document explaining the reasons for refurbishing Grenfell Tower, produced by Max Fordham, said: ‘Improving the insulation levels of the walls, roof and windows is the top priority of this refurbishment’.

Daily Mail newspaper cutting

Daily Mail, 16 June 2017

Primary reason

The 2012 planning documents cited by the Daily Mail – and studied by Carbon Brief – show that its reporting of their content to be highly selective and misleading.

The newspaper’s implication is that cutting carbon emissions to help meet the Climate Change Act was a “key” reason and “top priority” when the council was considering the refurbishment.

However, while they do mention reducing carbon emissions as one of the benefits, the planning documents themselves are quite clear what the primary reason was for the building’s overhaul.

In the introduction to the “planning statement” – the central overview document of the council’s 2012 application submitted by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation – it states the “context”:

“The need for the regeneration of Grenfell Tower has based upon an assessment of the wider Lancaster West Estate which identified the Tower as the top priority for investment on the Estate. The Tower requires improved thermal efficiency and sound insulation, new heating system, new windows and general improvements to the building and its setting.”

It is not until page six of the 17-page document when “climate change and energy” is first mentioned when listing eight “key themes” that summarise “key national, metropolitan and local planning policy”.

It is only on page 10 when it then gives more information about “Climate change and energy”. It says “the role that planning can play in achieving more sustainable development is at the heart of the NPPF [National Planning Policy Framework]”, adding that the London Plan (the Mayor of London’s “strategic planning” guidance) “sets out overall targets for CO2 emissions and how the planning system can promote their achievement”.

Even though climate change – both in terms of adaptation and mitigation – is now included in most planning guidance, it is not the “key” driver, as implied by the Daily Mail.

Included within the many documents that made up the 2012 planning application for the Grenfell Tower improvements is the “Sustainability & Energy Statement”. It clearly states at the start that the “primary” reason given for the refurbishment was to address complaints by residents that the tower, built in the early 1970s, was overheating in the summer and leaking heat in the winter. This would impact the mostly low-income residents both in terms of their personal comfort and health, but also the cost of their energy bills. It says, in full:

The poor insulation levels and air tightness of both the walls and the windows at Grenfell Tower result in excessive heat loss during the winter months. Addressing this issue is the primary driver behind the refurbishment.

Due to valid safely concerns the windows at Grenfell Towers are restricted to open no more than 100 mm. This restriction causes chronic overheating in the summer months. It is essential that the renovation works do not make the overheating problems any worse and where possible we will strive to reduce overheating in line with current guidelines.

The heating system exacerbates the overheating problem due to its high uncontrolled heat losses throughout the year (including summer) and is also reaching the end of its design life. The client wishes to update the heating system at this point. Updating the heating system allows the disruptive works to ‘piggy back’ on the recladding works.

‘The London Plan July 2011’ aims to conserve energy. A defined energy hierarchy should be followed. This hierarchy is as follows:

1) Be lean: use less energy, in particular by adopting sustainable design and construction measures

2) Be clean: supply energy efficiently

3) Be green: use renewable energy

This approach has been adopted to illustrate the environmental benefits achieved through the refurbishment of the tower.

Retrofitting

As the document stresses in the opening sentence, the refurbishment sought to address “the current energy and environmental comfort problems” of the residents. Within that context, it then shows how the “chosen solutions sit within the London Plan’s aim to bring existing housing stock up to the Mayor’s standards on sustainable design and construction”.

The Daily Mail article by Ross Clark also says:

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”.

Carbon Brief has examined the cited document and it does not contain the term “greener”, as quoted by the Mail.

The document is titled, “Using local powers to maximise energy efficiency retrofit“. It was published by the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in July 2013.

This is the full sentence that the Mail excerpt above partially quotes: “Given that around 80 per cent of London’s buildings will still be standing in 2050, energy efficiency retrofit is essential to meeting the Mayor’s targets.”

Regarding targets, the mayor’s report says:

Wide-scale energy efficiency retrofit is therefore crucial to meeting both the Government’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020 as well as the Mayor of London’s target to reduce London’s carbon emissions by 60 per cent on 1990 levels by 2025.

However, it is worth noting that the report’s foreword also highlights the wider benefits of “energy retrofits”, which reached well beyond the Mail’s claim that the “green targets” were key reason behind cladding being installed:

The opportunity for energy retrofitting in London’s housing is immense: more than one in five of the UK’s solid walled homes are in the capital, as well as 14 per cent of England’s fuel poor homes. And the benefits of attracting funding for retrofit are even greater: reducing our demand for energy resources and helping London’s most vulnerable households out of fuel poverty…

Retrofit also offers wider benefits to the day-to-day lives of Londoners. Making homes cheaper to keep warm reduces fuel poverty and its health impacts. Insulating homes brings them to a higher standard and can overcome chronic issues of poor ventilation and damp. Energy efficiency projects can regenerate entire communities, drive up housing values and engage residents in wider issues of sustainability. Retrofitting also provides an opportunity for pioneering local authorities to get an edge in the growing energy efficiency market and generate local jobs.

The Daily Mail, which has long pursued an anti-climate agenda in its comment pages, also tries to reinforce Clark’s article further with an editorial on page 16. It says:

“The more we learn of this tragedy, the more it appears that the blame lies not with money but staggering incompetence and misguided climate change targets…Was it, as official documents suggest, an attempt to slash greenhouse gas emissions?”

Daily Mail newspaper cutting

Daily Mail editorial, 16 June 2017

Conclusion

So, to conclude, “green targets” are far from being the “key” driving force behind refurbishing public housing stock. Reducing fuel poverty as well as improving the personal comfort and health of residents are also key motivations, as the planning documents cited above clearly state.

Theresa May, the prime minister, yesterday ordered a full public inquiry into the causes of the disaster. There have also been calls for an interim report to be published this summer. It will likely take months before all the contributory causes are identified and assessed in full.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 15:

  1. Obsession with green targets leads to inferno? Hardly. But the current not-quite-a--government of the UK has enthusiastically promised a bonfire of regulations post-Brexit, in so many words. Grenfell is only what a smouldering burn of regulations thanks to starvation of civil services produces. A full conflagration is not at all desirable. 

    The myopic arrogance of people who believe they can second-guess hard earned wisdom encapsulated in regulations produced by decades or centuries of nasty object lessons is barely to be believed. 

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  2. This isn't about the Grenfell Towers at all. And it is certainly not about green targets. It's about propaganda, political power, and disaster capitalism. And it's about scum in a variety of ways.

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  3. Yes this tragedy is hardly due to green targets. This is another typical Daily Fail anti environmental article. All buildings need insulation for a variety of obvious reasons, so its absurd to blame insulation or climate mitigation policies.

     

    I concur with comments 1 and 2. This tragedy looks at least in part like short sighted cost cutting, combined with  anti regulation and ideologically driven neoliberalism. In fact legislation was put in front of the British governmet in the last couple of years requiring upgrading of old buildings, especially adding sprinklers, but this was voted down apparently out of worries about costs etc. It's highly irresponsible to have done this because so many lives are at stake.

    I used to be involved in some building and infrastructure consultancy work so know a little of the background. This is how the situation appears to me:

    The fire safety provisions of the British apartment tower appear appalling, to almost non existent, although this was typical back in the 1970s in western countries. Modern codes are much better, but don't always require upgrading of older buildings out of "cost concerns".

    The basic goal is to get people out safely, even if the building is burning badly, so its critical to have proper fire alarms and smoke detectors for early warning, and these are not even a large expense. You need fire safe stairs with pressurisation to keep smoke out, and tall buildings normally have two stairs. You need fire resistant structure for the stairs of at least a couple of hours normally, and also to the basic building structure to keep the building stable, and sprinklers, because fire trucks cant reach above about 4 floors.

    The apartment building in England appeared to have none of this apart from some form of concrete frame, which would be inherently reasonably stable. The building was a disaster waiting to happen. The instruction to stay in rooms was bizarre to say the least, as modern practice is normally to get out fast.

    The exterior panels were very flammable, being thin metal with little fire resistance, and  a flammable polystyrene core. They have been banned in several countries, however provided you have proper smoke proof exit stairs, fire alarms, and sprinklers, and so on people would have at least had a much better chance of escaping, even with these burning panels. 

    The building could most certainly have been insulated from the inside, and with low flammability materials, or at least they would be buried behind fire resistant platerboard linings. The choice to use these panels looks like cost cutting and so on, and they are of a thin metal skin and flammable core so very susceptible to fire.

    I'm an unashamed apologist for regulations around health and safety. Without these people die. 

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  4. Conclusion?  You lie - you are unable to reach any conclusion that doubts Climate Change.  You lie in the very name of your website.  Your website have never done any single thing involving "skepticism".

    Skepticism means challenging the consensus.  Try reading that and comprehending that - skepticism means challenging the consensus.  When there was consensus in some parts of the world that earth was flat, skepticism meant arguing against that consensus.  Today, arguing that earth is round may be anything else, but it's not "skepticism".

    You are consensus lovers, therefore you are not skeptics.  You have neverd one any single piece of honest skepticism.

    You don't understand science either.  Climate science?  No, you don't.  Real climate science involves physics and mathematics, not scientific-sounding talk.

    Here is real climate science, if you can find a real scientist to challenge it and put their name on what's wrong with it - please do.  Get somebody to find an error in the thermodynamics, or an error in the math.

    Or act shamefully and just delete this open challenge.

    http://www.mukeshprasad.com/climatechange.html

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] We have no interest in engaging with people who will not respect our comments policy.

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can and will be rescinded if the posting individual continues to treat adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Moderating this site is a tiresome chore, particularly when commentators repeatedly submit offensive, off-topic posts or intentionally misleading comments and graphics or simply make things up. We really appreciate people's cooperation in abiding by the Comments Policy, which is largely responsible for the quality of this site.
     
    Finally, please understand that moderation policies are not open for discussion.  If you find yourself incapable of abiding by these common set of rules that everyone else observes, then a change of venues is in the offing.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter, as no further warnings shall be given.

    [JH] 

    The explanatory statement appearing directly under Skeptical Science in the header of each page of this website reads as follows:

    Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism

  5. Nigelj's remark about pressurization of stairs is particularly correct and significant and is exactly the sort of requirement that will fall through the cracks when oversight is impoverished. It appears something was wrong with the ventilation of fire stairs at Grenfell, almost doubtless down to a matter of broken or insufficient equipment the rectification of which pales in comparison to the ultimate cost of failure. This is what's known to us plebes as "false economy." 

    Closer to the gist of the original post, the Daily Mail leads us to the very sadly predictable matter of false choices. As it happens, the boxes of "reasonably efficient" and "reasonably fire resistant" could both have been ticked by the addition of ~£5k for appropriately fire resistant retrofit panels, a figure obviously far less than the down payment of £5 miillion now made by the false economics of "austerity." 

    Similarly, we're presented with bogus choices regarding doing the responsible thing with regard to climate change relatively cheaply now, compared to the costs of letting the problem evolve in size and cost by negligence of the style we've seen practiced in the UK with regard to fire safety.

    None of this is rocket science. Let alone being deeply tragic, it's embarrassingly stupid to behave this way, when we clearly know better. 

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  6. If the final paragraphs of a BBC article are true then it becomes clear that the cladding had everything to do with the rapid spread of the fire, video bears this out too.

     

    In a separate development, Panorama has discovered that firefighters put out the first fire at Grenfell Tower.

    They were called to a fridge fire, and within minutes told residents the fire was out in the flat.

    The crew was leaving the building when firefighters outside spotted flames rising up the side of the building.

    Four ministers were warned about tower block fire risks

     

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  7. £5k extra for a £1.8million job does not seem very much to get fire-retardant material. The gas pipes in the escape stairways is real genius, regardless of doors or over-pressure in the stairwell. The whole project was about making the building somewhat more comfortable and lowering the heating costs for low-income tenants — any green targets were simply an unavoidable side-effect to stoking less fuel.

    The people who planned this, both the construction people and the people in the municipal government were negligent to criminally negligent/selfish. The people in charge of oversight fell down on the job. The people trying to channel the outrage and emotion against "green goals" are cynical and perverse beyond redemption.

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  8. This is a shocking tradgey  - but worse is that Clark and others are using it to pursue their (I'll have to say) ill-informed agenda's.  His stuff is some of the worst journalism I've seen, and in my opinion this one is one of his worst.

    Having said that, there is more to be done to ensure a tradgey like this one does not occur again, as the main article points that quite clearly, and presents achieveable goals in residence refurbishment that I hope governments and contractors are reading.

    SkS and others should continue to call out these "shonky" stories, as unfortunately they are the ones that make the popular press.  

    (Mod happy for you to delete anything I've written, but this has got me quite fired up)

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  9. Daily Mail editorial: "The more we learn... the more it appears that the blame lies not with money but... misguided climate change targets… Was it... an attempt to slash greenhouse gas emissions?"  

    Uhh, how that not about money?  Low-income residents in London so flush with cash they just throw it in the furnace?

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  10. Most, if not all residental towers don't allow access to the roof, even in cases of emergency. Not sure if it would have helped in this situation but given that residents on higher floors were effectively isolated by the extent and severity of the fire on lower floors, going up was the only viable option but was apparently not available.    

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  11. Re: Skeptism = challenging consensus

    True. But Skeptism does not = rejecting consensus

    Anyway, that aside. Lets not forget that the Daily Mail is a political activist product not unlike state controlled communist and fascist media of the 1930s/40s or modern day Russia.

    The reason for posting such a despicable article (the title of which is an informal fallacy of one sort or another, see below) is to distract attention away from investigating the genuine causes.

    Informal Fallacies:

    onus probandi = Shifting the burden of proof
    post hoc ergo propter hoc = Correlation proves causation

    or 'Fallacy of the single cause' maybe appropriate.

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  12. 80 people died to save £5000 in taxes.

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  13. Paul D @11, yeah the daily mail have tried to distract attention from the real causes with a classic red herring fallacy and some emotional crowd manipulation. 

    As you point out fire safe panels would have cost almost nothing more. The media has also  said there were no fire alarms, smoke detectors, stair pressurisation, and smoke stop doors, and these things are relatively inexpensive and provide at least basic safety, and would certainly have saved lives.

    Sprinklers are worth mentioning. These are expensive to retrofit, but they have been shown to reduce property damage and save lives by approximately 50%, especially in risky occupancies with highrise buildings and kitchens etc. Houston in America has made it mandatory to fit these to old buildings, but have given owners some help with finance through some sort of tax concession and depreciation allowance. Britian has put it in the too hard basket. Sprinklers also sometimes significantly reduce insurance premiums.

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  14. I find it hard to believe that in 2017, you could have a 24 storey appartment block in the UK without sprinklers.

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  15. Hear, Hear: I can't believe there was no sprinkler system but will expect this to be made publicly/(globally) known as the most glaring mistake in highrise buildings aka dog-boxes.... how did that journalist miss so many elephants?

    The people in these apartments are being treated with contempt but such has our society become. It is all of our responsibility to make sure this is never forgotten for the calculated murder it is!!

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