Buildings fit for Europe

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

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Europe was right to suggest a fitness regime when it dubbed new proposals to tackle climate change “Fit for 55.” Like any plan to improve health and resilience, for the climate as for the human body, there are no easy shortcuts to guarantee lasting success: the whole system must be engaged in a long-term fitness programme.

The EU building stock must be the skeleton around which to build core muscles holding together a healthy social body. Only by fully engaging the building and construction sector can this body take strides towards energy savings and a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

As a result, for buildings, we anticipate a complete transformation of the sector. Buildings in Europe account for around 36% of all greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of energy used.

They put a €194 billion burden on healthcare systems, while some 50 million Europeans live in energy poverty. Transforming the sector should be a hands-on, well-prepared, unified response to the twin challenges of climate change and economic recovery.

Actions must be aligned to rethink building practices. From construction and renovation to how buildings are connected to the heat and electricity networks. From how digital technologies are used to how renovations are financed.

From how buildings are made resilient to the effects of climate change to how the people living or working in them are kept from struggling to pay their energy bills. We will all have to work together to construct buildings fit for the future and the EU’s Fit for 55 Package can help realise that.

And, because the energy performance of buildings is not just about new buildings, renovation is at the heart of any plans to reduce the energy use and emissions of buildings.

The European Commission last year proposed a “Renovation Wave”. This strategy would at least double renovation rates in the EU over the next ten years and make sure renovations lead to higher energy and resource efficiency.

But it’s not only the current rate of renovations that is pitifully low, standing at just 1% of the EU building stock each year. The amount of energy savings realised each time a renovation does happen is also far too low, at just 9% on average for residential buildings.

Without addressing the depth of renovations, a doubling in activity alone will not lead to the savings needed to support a 55% emissions reduction target.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) last month reminded us that world leaders have agreed to go beyond 55% by mid-century and cut emissions to net zero by 2050.

“Making zero‐carbon‐ready building retrofits a central pillar of economic recovery strategies in the early 2020s is a no‐regrets action,” the IEA said in a Net Zero Roadmap, published 18 May. Postponing action will simply make decarbonisation “more difficult and costly” later, the IEA warned.

This is where “deep renovation” comes in – and the sooner the better. Only 0.2% of EU buildings are deeply renovated each year. This number would have to reach 2.5% a year on average across all countries by 2030, the Paris-based agency said, something it speculated would be the biggest challenge facing the buildings sector.

The revision of the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED), expected next month under Fit for 55, can already start us on that path, before the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is reviewed later in the year. The EED sets a target of reducing energy consumption by at least 32.5% by 2030.

As Eurima, we believe this should be raised to 40% and include an indication of the contribution building renovation could make. For example, extending the scope of the directive to include all public buildings owned or used by central, regional and local authorities would significantly boost the impact of the EED.

Stronger EED requirements, resulting in lower energy demand, would also facilitate higher penetration of renewables in domestic heating and cooling. This would pave the way for greater demand-side flexibility in the energy system, helping to fulfil the objectives of the Renewable Energy Directive – another key piece of the Fit for 55 Package.

The past decade has shown that making the 2020 energy efficiency target voluntary has been detrimental, if we compare efforts to boost energy efficiency with progress to meet binding greenhouse gas and renewables targets.

Binding EU and national energy efficiency targets for 2030 would put the Energy Efficiency First Principle where it belongs, at the centre of Fit for 55.

The Commission has also stated its intention to extend the Emissions Trading System (ETS) to include heating fuels for buildings. Uncertainty persists around the rationale and practicalities for any such move, and how it would be reconciled with the Energy Efficiency First principle.

One thing is clear: if left unaccompanied by building renovation programmes, there is a risk of increasing the cost of heating homes, pushing more people into energy poverty. So far, no real progress has been made to reduce energy poverty at EU level.

All of this sets the stage for an ambitious EPBD revision to step in as the final piece of the Fit for 55 programme later this year.

Europe must not neglect the core muscles of its body in a rush for a better look. Without the Renovation Wave, there is no Green Deal or climate neutrality. Without the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, there is no Renovation Wave.

Without buildings, the EU will not be Fit for 55.

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