The European Commission is considering a new EU-wide requirement to measure the carbon emissions associated with construction materials throughout their whole lifecycle but is expected to stop short of regulating for now.
Buildings are responsible for around 40% of the EU’s energy consumption and 36% of its greenhouse gas emissions. To tackle these, the European Union has embarked on a huge renovation effort in order to reach its legally-binding objective of cutting emissions down to net-zero by 2050.
The European Commission aims to introduce minimum energy performance standards for all buildings by 2035 as part of the upcoming revision of the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), due on 14 December.
However, little progress has been made on reducing the environmental impact of construction materials used in the building sector.
“Globally, 11% of emissions are from embodied carbon in construction – the emissions created from the construction, demolition and the wider supply chain of a building,” reads a letter by the #BuildingLife project, a coalition of industry stakeholders representing the entire building value chain.
Their aim is to persuade the Commission to consider a so-called “Whole Life Carbon” (WLC) approach tackling building emissions from the whole supply chain, including the construction and demolition sectors.
The coalition estimates that embodied carbon amounts to 10-20% of the total emissions associated with buildings in the European Union, but points to a lack of data available at EU level to measure progress in a consistent way.
In Brussels, the European Commission is showing interest in the approach, but has opted for a more cautious regulatory stance for now, focusing first on standard measurements before considering the introduction of environmental targets at EU level.
Tackling emissions from buildings over their “whole lifecycle, including production and transport of materials, construction, refurbishment and end of life” was identified among the challenges to tackle, the Commission wrote in a preliminary cost-benefit analysis of the EPBD revision.
According to the leaked draft EPBD revision, EU countries will be asked to provide an “overview” of planned measures to address “the reduction of whole life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions in the construction, renovation, operation and end of life of buildings”.
The European Commission is also considering the introduction of a non-obligatory WLC category in energy performance certificates (EPCs) for buildings. Under the current draft, EPCs should include a “yes/no indication whether a calculation on whole life carbon emissions has been carried out for the building” and “the value of the whole life carbon emissions (if available)”.
The leaked EPBD draft mandates calculating the life-cycle global warming potential (GWP) of new buildings via Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs). This should take place as of 1 January 2027 “for all new buildings with a useful floor area larger than 2000 sqm” and for all new buildings starting on 1 January 2030.
Those should take place on the basis of standardised methodologies for measuring the environmental footprint of buildings that are accepted at the EU level.
Where national calculation tools exist, they “may be used to provide the required disclosure,” the draft says. Other calculation tools already in place at national level may be used “if they fulfil the minimum criteria laid down by the Level(s) common EU framework,” it adds.
The Level(s) initiative dates back to 2018, when the EU began testing a new framework designed to measure the sustainability performance of buildings, from design to end of life.
“Level(s) is designed to improve the sustainability of buildings throughout their lifecycle, helping professionals deliver better buildings while also speeding Europe’s transition towards a more circular economic mode,” the EU’s environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said in 2020, as the initiative was officially launched.
“I see the impact of Level(s) as a signal for the industry that the EU has taken a point of view on the sustainability goals,” explained Remy Heijer of the Dutch Green Building Council.
“This will have a major impact on the industry as it gives definitions on sustainability internationally,” he added.
Most EU states appear to be on board with utilising the Level(s) framework as well.
“We know that some member states would prefer to use Level(s) as a harmonised framework,” Quentin Galland, Public Affairs Director at Knauf Insulation, told EURACTIV.
France leads the charge
As a majority of buildings-related emissions are associated with energy consumption, making them more efficient is an obvious low-hanging fruit, which explains the EU’s focus on renovation and insulation.
But for countries with a low-carbon supply of electricity like France, energy use emissions from buildings are less of a priority than for countries with a more carbon-intensive electricity mix like Germany.
“In France, in new constructions, because of high energy performance of the building envelope and very low emission factor of electricity, embodied carbon could represent up to 75% of total carbon footprint and the remaining relates to heating and cooling” explained Vincent Briard, Group Sustainability Director at Knauf Insulation.
As a consequence, while the EU is primarily concerned with emissions from heating, individual EU states have begun going at it alone.
“On this topic, France is amongst the pioneering countries, they’ve created the French Environmental Regulation RE2020. One of the challenge is the harmonization of the calculating method,” Briard told EURACTIV, adding that he expected it to come into effect early 2022.
The new French regulation will account for the carbon impact across all materials and equipment used in a building, from construction to the demolition phase. It will also give a higher weight to the carbon that is emitted today than the carbon that will be emitted later.
The initiative “will increase the use of materials with a low carbon footprint, particularly wood and biosources,” said the ATIBT, the international tropical timber technical association.
Most immediate energy and carbon savings will come from the use of wood as an alternative to cement, bricks and steel. For example, larch cladding produces an energy saving of 24% compared to bricks, according to recent research.
The Nordic countries, which have prominent forestry industries and high shares of nuclear and renewables in their electricity mixes, have similar plans.
“Norway, Sweden, Denmark and then Finland are all working on including the carbon footprint of the building, the embodied carbon and operational carbon, via regulation within one or two years, certainly within five,” said Briard.
There is just one problem with the French regulation for WLC: it is calculated via the so-called dynamic life cycle assessment method (DLCA), which is not in line with the EU methodology.
DLCA is not the method “envisioned in the Level(s) framework by the European Commission, and so we are wary of the French methodology becoming the norm for all of Europe,” noted Briard.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]