EXCLUSIVE / More than 70% of EU states could face court action over defiance of building efficiency measures which are slated to account for up to a quarter of the EU’s planned energy savings by 2020, EurActiv has learned.

Sources at the European Commission confirm that 19 member states are currently in breach of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which was adopted in 2002 and recast in 2010, and now face the threat of financial penalties from Brussels.

“Infringement procedures for non-communication were started on 21 September 2012 against 24 member states that did not declare full transposition at that time,” Marlene Holzner, a spokeswoman for Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, told EurActiv in an email.

Since then four more states claim to have joined four law-abiders - including Sweden, Denmark and Ireland - in unreservedly implementing the law but 11 more countries have not fully shown their hand. Eight have declared nothing at all.

On the 21 September cut-off date, all non-compliant states were sent letters of formal notice, giving them two months to outline their plans for implementing the directive, and reasons for the delay.

Brussels insiders believe that reasoned opinions are currently being prepared, the next step of a legal process that ends at the European Court of Justice.

EU officials will only confirm that 19 member states could “potentially” be brought before the court in what would be an unprecedented mass legal action.

“The Commission should act quickly against the maximum amount of states in the strongest possible terms,” said Adrian Joyce, the secretary-general of EuroACE, an alliance of companies for energy efficient buildings.

“Although European leaders have heard about the contribution of highly energy efficient buildings to energy and climate goals, they are clearly not listening,” he told EurActiv.

No CO2 solution without energy efficiency in buildings

No effective reduction of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions can take place without tackling the issue. Residential and commercial buildings account for roughly 32% of global energy use, and over 30% of total end use energy-related CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA expects energy demand from buildings to more than double by 2050, because of a growing world population and fewer people per household in the developed world.

In 2010, households were responsible for 25% of Europe’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to UN greenhouse gas inventories collated by the European Environment Agency.

Yet buildings are not covered by the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) and, unlike targets for renewable energy and carbon dioxide reductions, the EU’s goal of a 20% increase in energy savings by 2020 is voluntary. 

Officials say that the EPBD will deliver 4-5% of the 20% cut, by ensuring that new public buildings are near-zero carbon emitters by 2019, and new private buildings by 2021.

What is the EPBD?

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive requires energy performance certificates (EPCs) to be issued for buildings, giving owners and tenants an attractive way of comparing a dwelling's economy record.

From tomorrow (9 January), the threshold for public buildings subject to EPCs will be reduced from 1,000 square meters, to 500m2. It will halve again to 250m2 on 9 July 2015.

Among Europe’s existing stock, only buildings needing major renovation works would be covered by the directive. But because of the ‘lock-in’ effect that energy inefficient buildings can have on future emissions, efficiency advocates still see the EPBD as vital statute.

Under the EU law, which calculates end-use emissions from heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and hot water, member states are required to undertake a raft of measures, including:  

  • Developing cost-optimal methodologies to ensure minimum building requirements are met;
  • Preparing national plans for the 2019 and 2021 deadlines to enforce zero emitting building guidelines;
  • Conducting surveys to list financial incentives for encouraging this;
  • Extending requirements to set minimum energy performance levels for all buildings when a major renovation takes place;
  • Establishing measures for enhanced inspections of heating and cooling systems;
  • Establishing penalties for people and companies that do not comply.

Naming and shaming laggards

All of the EU-27 countries have provided details of their planned financial incentives. But so far, just nine EU states have revealed their national plans for moving to near-zero CO2 buildings - Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

Although member states are also required to send Brussels their calculations for cost-optimal methodology by 21 March this year, “so far no member state has done so,” Holzner said.

Building economy campaigners suggest that Brussels embark on what Joyce called a “best-practice strategy to name and shame energy efficiency laggards in front of their peers,” possibly at the EU’s Energy Demand Management Committee.

“I think that 2013 is going to be a pivotal year for energy efficiency in buildings,” Joyce added. “This is the flagship directive on buildings and if it is not properly implemented we will really miss the opportunity for a generation to do something about this.”