Clearing Up Emissions from Buildings: A Life Story

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

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“Carbon emissions” and decarbonisation are now such common phrases that we sometimes forget to think about what they mean. Put simply, too much carbon in the atmosphere is a threat to our health, our environment and our economy and the cause of rising temperatures.

Cutting those emissions through decarbonisation strategies, particularly for an industry as important as the buildings sector, means looking at Whole-Life Carbon (WLC).

“Whole-Life Carbon” means taking account of carbon emissions over all the time in which a building is constructed, used, and maintained, as well as at the end of its life. It also means adopting the right policies to reduce carbon emissions.

We need a harmonised, EU-level system for decarbonising buildings. One that takes a clear, sequential approach to policies for highly energy efficient and low-emission buildings.

At a time in which the EU and member states are adopting or discussing a large range of carbon emission policies, there must be recognition that energy efficiency is the number one priority for decarbonising buildings.

Europe could be about to take big steps towards reducing WLC emissions. With targets in place to cut carbon emissions by at least 55% this decade, and then bring them down further to net zero before the end of 2050, a series of proposals gives us a chance to support decarbonisation of the building stock – and of our societies.

– Helping Europe to build better buildings –

Buildings in Europe today account for 40% of energy consumed, as well as 36% of greenhouse gases emitted.

Emissions from the manufacturing of materials, transportation, construction, maintenance and deconstruction of a building are known as “embodied carbon.” Carbon emissions linked to the use phase of the building are “operational” carbon emissions.

Making good choices about efficient building practices and materials can have a huge effect on both operational and embodied carbon emissions.

Materials such as mineral wool insulation can for instance help make houses more energy efficient, having a direct positive impact on climate change.

Energy savings through the use of insulation like mineral wool can be up to 200 times greater than energy used to manufacture and install the insulation.

Reducing the energy needed for heating and cooling through energy efficiency is a prerequisite to decarbonising the building stock.

This will support proposals for a Renovation Wave made last year, as part of a European Green Deal, to increase renovation rates for buildings around the EU.

Before the end of this year, we expect a review of legislation to decarbonise buildings around the EU: the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD).

This should be an important move towards addressing the whole life cycle impacts of buildings, with a focus on both operational carbon and embodied carbon.

To create the right impetus under this vital 2021 review, we must first mainstream principles like Energy Efficiency First, deep renovation, and introduce a Whole Life Carbon dimension.

This shared thinking could later be supported by a WLC roadmap on reducing embodied and operational emissions, ahead of the next stage EPBD review in 2026.

All of this is needed to support the creation of a Circular Economy in Europe.

Buildings must be integrated part of a circular economy, but we need EU rules to stop valuable waste created during renovation or demolition ending up in landfill.

Strong regulatory tools should reduce embodied carbon emissions through the recycling and reuse of buildings waste.

– A European approach to a global problem –

To fully assess and address the sustainability of buildings, we need common EU monitoring systems for products and buildings. Common metrics supported by all member states are essential to reach our decarbonisation targets.

The EU has already begun to develop a system called Level(s) that could realise the vision for a circular and climate-neutral built environment.

Level(s) is a way of assessing the life-cycle impacts of buildings, including elements such as resource use, comfort, and resilience to climate change.

The Level(s) framework uses standardised methodologies to assess life cycle impacts of building products and buildings, through Environmental Product Declarations known as EN15804 and EN15978.

As Eurima, we believe Level(s) and Level(s) related methodologies should now be become binding on all EU countries.

There is big potential for more harmonisation between member states. This is where the EU now has to be ambitious. Without shared rules for decarbonising buildings, we risk creating a slow and hopeless confusion of national approaches.

LEVEL(s) could give Europe a common methodology for standardised reporting on buildings’ WLC emissions.

Eurima members are fully committed to the 2030 and 2050 climate goals for the decarbonisation of the building stock, but we need a coherent, consistent EU policy framework to reach these goals.

No country can decarbonise alone. We need a level playing field to cut carbon emissions, which is why headline goals and methodologies should be defined at EU level. This then leaves room for national targets to be set at a national level.

Europeans need highly energy efficient, low-emission buildings. We need them to reduce energy poverty, improve health and wellbeing, mitigate climate change, and promote economic recovery after the pandemic.

All of this can be done through a shared, sequential approach to cutting Whole Life Carbon emissions, with energy efficient building practices and products at its heart.

The EU has started to put everything in place for a decarbonised building stock. This is Europe’s moment to show the world what cutting carbon emissions across the whole life of a building really means.

 

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