EU’s green building push risks driving homelessness, activists warn

Volunteers from Secours Populaire talk with a homeless man during a night roam in the streets of Paris in 2018. [YOAN VALAT / EPA-EFE]

The European Commission must ensure that plans to price carbon emissions in the building sector does not lead to growing rates of homelessness, campaigners said on Wednesday (17 March).

Homelessness in the EU has already increased by 70% in the last decade and currently stands at around 700,000 with that level expected to increase as countries lift the moratorium on evictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, many people across the EU cannot afford to heat their homes properly, with 30 million Europeans in energy poverty, according to the Jacques Delors Institute, a think-tank.

Yet, both homelessness and energy poverty risk being impacted by the EU’s push to increase climate ambition, warned said Freek Spinnewijn, director of FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless.

In June, the Commission will table proposals to reform the EU emissions trading scheme, which may be extended to include buildings and road transport. Later in the year, the EU executive will also table a revision of the energy performance of buildings directive, which may widen mandatory minimum performance standards to existing buildings instead of just new ones.

But while an extension of the ETS to buildings may incentivise richer homeowners to renovate, there are concerns that the rising price of heating would increase levels of energy poverty and drive-up costs for tenants.

“A successful EU Green Deal requires strong EU and national measures on transport and buildings,” said Claude Turmes, Luxembourg’s minister for energy and regional planning.

“Including these sectors in the EU ETS is counterproductive,” he said on Twitter.

30 million Europeans were in energy poverty in 2019

Thirty million Europeans – the equivalent of Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic’s populations combined – were unable to adequately heat their homes in 2019, according to a new report from the Jacques Delors Institute.

The Commission is nevertheless considering this option, said Mauro Petriccione director general at the Commission’s climate action department.

If the ETS were to apply to buildings, it would be based on the fuels used to heat them, Petriccione said at a webinar organised by French MEP Pascal Canfin, who chairs the European Parliament’s environment committee.

However, Spinnewijn rejected the idea. “We think that both initiatives – even if I welcome the impact that it might have on climate – might contribute to making housing more expensive, and that’s really worrying,” he said.

He also cautioned against adopting mandatory minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings without putting social safeguards in place at the same time.

“We are not for mandatory minimum standards if there are no social safeguards. I don’t think anybody should lose their house because of imposing these kinds of standards and I would like to remind people that the EU is bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights when it takes EU actions, and one of these rights is the right to housing assistance,” he said.

Will the Renovation Wave benefit the energy poor?

A wave of much-needed housing renovations could soon be sweeping through Europe, according to European Commission plans published last week. This Renovation Wave must ensure a quick and locally supported transition in order to support those who need it most, writes Martha Myers.

Petriccione countered that Europe’s building stock badly needs renovating, saying the problem will only increase as buildings grow older and climate change worsens.

“What are the social consequences of the status quo? Even if you put aside the effect of climate change, what are the social consequences of the building policy that we have today?” he asked.

“They’re not particularly good in a situation where the climate is changing, where our building stock is increasingly inadequate to serve the needs of our people, especially the ones who are least able to cope, increasing temperature, hotter summer colder winters, greater difficulty to heat,” he said.

Petriccione admitted that encouraging people to renovate their homes was a “luxury problem”. The real issue, he said, lies in social aspects like stopping rent hikes.

“When it comes to the poorer, fragile parts of the population, there is no institutional mechanism that can fix the problem, you’ll have to put money to support them, period. There’s nothing else to be done,” he said.

Spinnewijn suggested that the Commission consider a cold homes fund for those who cannot afford to heat their homes and warned that there needs to be a more sophisticated understanding of the people vulnerable to the impacts of these measures, particularly those on the private rental market.

There is a gender dimension to the issue as well, said Michaela Kauer, head of the Brussels office of the City of Vienna, who also spoke at the webinar.

Investments in affordable housing have dropped over the years, leading to a €600 billion investment gap, she pointed out, saying the shortage will have a disproportionate impact on women.

“When it comes to energy poverty, I strongly, strongly recommend looking into the gender dimension of this in housing affordability. In general, there is a gender gap,” she said.

Biggest challenge in energy transition is social justice, EU official says

While legitimate worries are being expressed about funding for low-carbon technologies to meet EU climate goals, the biggest challenge will be to manage the energy transition in a way that does not deepen social inequalities, a senior EU official has said.

Other reservations are being expressed on the side of industry. “Carbon pricing can play a role in the decarbonisation of the building and heating sectors, as it can provide incentives for the fuel switch and to some extent for energy efficiency investments,” says the European Alliance to Save Energy, an industry coalition.

“Yet, it should not replace impactful regulatory measures in the building sector driving the energy savings necessary to meet climate neutrality,” the alliance said in a policy paper published on Thursday (18 March).

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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