This article is part of our special report Can Energy Union build healthier homes?.
The EU’s Energy Union strategy has the twin goals of fighting climate change and boosting energy security – but could it also build healthier homes for European citizens?
80 million Europeans live in damp and leaky buildings, which creates mould and mildew. The risk of infection almost doubles when mould is present and it can also trigger asthma attacks.
Renovating buildings – where Europeans spend 90% of their time – to take indoor climate into account can boost air quality, exposure to sunlight, and even help sleep.
Sickness hits productivity and well-being, and in some cases, high or low building temperatures can even kill. Lack of sunlight can lead to depression.
There is a relationship between indoor climate and consumers’ health, physical and mental well-being, motivation and ability to rest and recover, said Professor Gunnar Grün, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, who has studied the connections.
One year after it unveiled Energy Union, the European Commission will propose new legislation to put the vision on the road to reality.
The new guidelines, rules and laws represent an opportunity for policymakers – if they get it right – to increase energy security and combat global warming.
But they could also leave Europeans with healthier homes, while giving local economies a much-needed shot in the arm.
The flagship plan was launched last year in response to two powerful policy drivers; the drive to shift to a low-carbon economy, and to wean the EU off its addiction to Russian gas.
That dependence was brutally highlighted by the Ukraine crisis, and Russia’s willingness to use gas supplies to put pressure on countries.
An interconnected Energy Union across the EU would make it possible for shortages in some nations to be made up by others, and bolster energy security across the bloc, the European Commission said in February 2015.
The UN Climate Change Conference in Paris was also weighing heavy on policymakers’ minds as they drafted the plan.
Held in December 2015, the COP21 secured a historic international agreement to limit global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, with an aspirational 1.5-degree target enshrined in the deal.
Governments promised to report on their progress every five years but, once the celebrations at the Le Bourget centre were over, the EU – a driving force in the pact – had to identify how it would deliver on its promise.
In October 2015, EU leaders had agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, and to boost their energy efficiency and renewable share by 27%, compared to 1990 levels.
Those goals could still be revised upwards after the successful COP21 but the early signs are that the Commission will stick to the 2030 numbers.
National governments had dropped the executive’s original 30% target to 27% in summit talks.
Two masters and multiple benefits
Serving two masters at the same time is never easy. But energy efficiency and, in particular in buildings, answers both policy questions.
Renovating buildings for efficiency reduces the amount of energy used, vital for cutting emissions and supplier-dependence.
70% of the EU’s existing building stock is highly inefficient. Buildings are responsible for 40% of the EU’s energy consumption and 36% of its CO2 emissions.
CO2 is a global warming gas but emissions could be cut by about 5%, the Commission estimates.
The EU imports more than half its energy every year. Meeting Europe’s full efficiency potential would cut gas imports by 40% over the next fifteen years, according to Commission analysis.
These are not fleeting benefits either, with buildings in the EU lasting from 50 to 100 years, nine out of ten existing buildings will still be standing in 2050, according to the Renovate Europe campaign.
The campaign says that renovation programs can create two million local direct jobs by 2020, and stimulate much needed investment in construction – an industry that is a bellwether for the broader economy.
Research has shown that deep renovation of buildings could save billions of euros in electricity grid and generation investment.
Building renovation for efficiency also means lower bills for consumers. Efficiency renovation, such as insulation, also brings benefits to the indoor climate and so for health.
The European Commission has recognised the huge potential of energy efficiency, vowing to “put efficiency first” in its Energy Union strategy.
“The energy we don’t use is our first fuel”, Commission Vice-President in charge of Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič has said.
Šefčovič and Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete have also identified the renovation of building stock as vital for security and the environment.
Cañete in October told representatives of Europe’s cities and regions to focus their climate change efforts on energy efficiency and especially the renovation of buildings.
“We can make considerable gains […] energy efficiency has an important role to play in the achieving of our climate goals in the EU and globally,” he said.
The Commission has also pushed to make it easier for building renovation programs to access the multi-billion euro Juncker Investment Fund, although barriers to raising the necessary investment remain.
Private investment in energy efficient needs to increase fivefold by 2030, according to a group set up by the European Commission and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Finance Initiative.
Unless that happens, the EU risks missing its 2020 and 2030 energy efficiency targets, its report said.
Implementation of existing efficiency legislation by national governments has also been poor.
A year ago, every member state of the European Union, with the sole exception of Malta, was hit by legal action over failures to translate the EU’s Energy Efficiency Directive into national law.
The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive was initially supposed to reduce the EU’s energy consumption by up to 6%. The directive was recast in 2010 to cover residential and non-residential buildings.
All new structures in the EU were required to be nearly zero-energy buildings by 2021, with a 2019 target for the public sector but implementation on the ground has been poor.
The Commission has said that enforcement of energy efficiency legislation will be tougher in the future.
While challenges such as investment remain, the Commission has the chance to send a signal to national governments and investors.
This year, it will revise the Energy Efficiency Directive and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive; part of the first wave of Energy Union-related legislation.
Drafting those revisions in such a way as to incentive not only efficiency but also the indoor climate would be a first step towards building the next generation of energy efficient and healthy homes in the EU.
This Special Report, published the week of Healthy Buildings Day (April 20), will investigate what can be done and what benefits could be won.
But why should EU officials legislate to encourage healthy renovation? The answer lies with the consumers, according to the VELUX Group’s Ingrid Reumert, who will have to pay for their home renovations.
“Research has revealed that there are multiple drivers that can motivate home owners to renovate such as improved health and better indoor climate as well as increased energy performance,” she said.
“There is a need to create incentives by making an attractive legislative framework that integrates energy efficiency and other key parameters for indoor comfort, health and well-being.”