Circular and Green: Rethinking the Built Environment in Europe

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

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Children drawing a house for the first time make a picture with lines and right angles. Now and in the future we all need to start seeing circles in buildings. The European Commission is working on plans for a sustainable built environment. With proposals made this year for a circular EU economy, sustainable construction could turn around the way we look at buildings.

Circularity and sustainability are buzzwords representing two mutually reinforcing ideals. It is widely accepted that sustainability means ensuring our consumption patterns are in line with the natural resources available. When it comes to circularity, we talk about maintaining production with less need for primary resources. This means reusing, recycling, rethinking. It means starting to learn from our waste. If sustainability was the first step to a green Europe, circularity is the second. With sustainability as the economic model for the future, circularity enables the transition to a Green Europe.

The EU renovation wave is an exciting new initiative that can help Europe to create a circular, sustainable built environment. Renovating buildings can reduce energy poverty, improve health and wellbeing, and mitigate climate change, by making the homes, offices, schools, and hospitals we use safer, cleaner and more energy efficient.

Buildings in Europe account for 40% of energy consumed, 36% of greenhouse gases emitted, almost half of raw materials consumed, and more than 40% of solid waste produced in the EU.

Today, less than 1 percent of buildings standing in the EU are renovated every year. To get carbon emissions down in line with our 2050 targets, this must increase to at least 3 percent. Buildings use more energy than anything else in the EU and our building stock today is simply not energy efficient.

Renovating buildings requires far less materials than building new ones, but let’s face it, the  deep energy renovation needed to tackle climate change, cut energy bills, and promote healthy indoor environments will require large amounts of new materials and equipment. This is why we need good circular thinking: to make our buildings part of the solution.

Building materials should for instance be more durable, with an increased recycled content, easier to dismantle, and recyclable when they reach their end of life. We need principles at an EU level that will make manufacturers think before they produce, and investors think before they invest.

Having brought sustainable consumption into EU thinking, we need to make sure we use and reuse the products we consume in a sustainable way. Circularity is about sustainable use.

Circularity encourages a focus on operation, enabling reductions in the carbon emitted across a product’s whole lifecycle. The aim is to make sure that energy and the carbon emissions from building materials are reduced as much as possible, almost to zero. People tend to focus on the operational aspects of a building, but in a circular economy we need to talk about the building’s full lifecycle. That means from the extraction of raw materials, through transportation and production, to construction and end of life.

We need to develop an EU-wide open standard for information on the content of construction products, to support the development of material passports that encourage the use of non-toxic and recyclable materials. Imagine that, encouraged by the EU renovation wave, you want to renovate your house or office, replacing for instance inefficient windows or insulation. What should be done with the old components? Can they be recycled or reused? How should new components be installed and used? We need clear information along the whole supply chain.

There is also an urgent need to boost the amount of recycling done with building materials from renovation and deconstruction projects. The sorting of construction waste from deconstruction and demolition sites may need to become mandatory, and non-weight targets for the recycling of construction products could be set. Reuse and recycling must become more financially attractive than landfilling. Currently, construction materials still end up in landfills, as landfilling is often cheaper than recycling.

Commission work agendas say a sustainable construction plan should be proposed in 2022. Now is the moment to start building on what we have. Fortunately, EU solutions already exist.

Products including mineral wool insulation use a well-established environmental product declaration (EPD) system based on a life cycle assessment. EPDs today are used by policy makers and by downstream users of construction products, with a single methodology developed to meet different needs across all markets. The voluntary EPD system is in line with the latest “Product Environmental Footprint” principles developed by the European Commission.

A voluntary information system known as Level(s) also shows how to improve the environmental performance of buildings in the EU. If Level(s) were expanded it could be the basis for a future European construction-sector policy, looking at social at well as environmental criteria across the whole life cycle of a building.

As we grapple with an unprecedented global health challenge, we have a unique opportunity to rebuild the economy as a circular economy. We shouldn’t just see this crisis as the end of things but as a chance to restart things, and to restart them differently. The circular economy, with a sustainable construction industry at its heart, offers an example of how we can start again more sustainably, using less: a welcome new approach in an economic downturn.

It is time to move on from those early drawings and think again about how we see buildings.

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