Buildings are crucial to meeting COP21’s ambition

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

If the targets set out at the Paris Climate Change Summit are to be met, action needs to be taken immediately. [Cathy and Paul/Flickr]

The COP21 Paris agreement to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C has shifted the goalposts for European energy policy decisions, writes Oliver Rapf.

Oliver Rapf is executive director of Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE).

Greenhouse gas reduction targets will have to be redefined in order to not cross this threshold, and policies delivering the reductions have to be made much more effective and ambitious. Solutions are available, but time is of essence, as leading climate researchers concluded in a recent study on how to meet the 1.5°C challenge. They identify faster improvements in energy efficiency as an important enabling factor. The building sector has a wealth of solutions to contribute.

Ministers from some of the largest EU countries such as France, Germany and the UK are calling for a more ambitious EU policy to live up to the Paris agreement. European policymakers have a solution at hand: the built environment is the nexus where some of the most important policy levers to limit global warming meet. Europe’s building stock could not only reduce greenhouse gases by increasing its efficiency levels, it could also enable an increasing share of renewables in the energy system.

The future European building stock could act as a counterbalance to intermittent renewable energy supply. It could contribute to balancing the electricity grid through proactive demand-side management and intermittent energy storage. And it could speed up the electrification of transport by integrating smart charging infrastructure for e-cars, whether at public or private charging points.

This is not only good news for those building owners who like to be independent from an energy supplier, or for investors seeking to realise multiple investment return streams. In fact, it is also an excellent opportunity for energy companies as it will help them solve some of the problems with managing intermittent renewable energy sources.

Europe’s buildings could increase the speed with which the three biggest C02 polluters – the transport, the power and the building sector itself – are reducing their climate impact.

2016 will be the year to start this transformation. The revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) provides a once-in-a-decade opportunity to introduce a policy framework which kick starts the changing role of buildings. Rising to the 1.5°C challenge, the revision must be comprehensive, not just a fiddling on the edges. With 40% of the final energy consumed in the sector, the recent Heating & Cooling Strategy underlines the importance of highly efficient and smart buildings. It must now be followed up with an ambitious and smart policy package. Already a year ago, the Energy Union Strategy highlighted the crucial role of buildings to increase energy security. A strengthened EPBD could be a perfect tool to achieve the climate and energy security goals while increasing European economic competitiveness.

Buildings are the place where all the solutions come together. The future design of the electricity markets, a revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) together with an effective Buildings Directive must provide a packaged solution which triggers the comprehensive renovation of the European building stock.

We are at a technological turning point at which buildings will be transformed from being an energy sink to an energy source, and will become micro energy hubs. Innovative entrepreneurs such as the Tesla CEO Elon Musk have understood the sign of the times. Tesla entering the market for home energy storage through affordable battery solutions is a signal that should wake up European policymakers. Musk’s business decision highlights that this market is moving from the innovation to the growth stage.

Tesla might be the best known example but it is by no means the only one. Battery storage is developing fast and companies and innovators around the world are in fierce competition. While batteries are just one of a number of technologies to provide storage and grid balancing functions, the burning question is whether EU policies will trail the trend and leave it to North American, Japanese or Chinese entrepreneurs to occupy this new market, or whether upcoming policy decisions will give Europe an innovation and implementation lead on the topic. And will the business community support these innovations pro-actively?

Our buildings are the biggest infrastructure investment we have. Is Europe willing to make this infrastructure futureproof by transforming the building stock and by ensuring that new and old buildings are energy smart? Will Europe take its Paris promise seriously and put the building sector at the centre of its solutions agenda? The answer will have to be given through many actions, but it has to be given in 2016.

The revision of the Buildings Directive sits at the core of the answer. A comprehensive and ambitious revision will not only be good for the climate, but for Europe’s innovation and technology leadership, for its economy and for Europe’s citizens benefitting from healthier and better places to live and work.