Confined life under COVID-19 focuses global attention on the need to renovate homes

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

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Weeks of staying inside to limit the spread of Coronavirus mean we’ve rarely been more sensitive to what it means to be at home. But around 50 million EU citizens are currently living in leaky houses that they cannot afford to heat or cool properly. Now, more than ever, the EU should invest in renovating our homes, offices, and schools.

This was already about reducing energy poverty, improving health and wellbeing, and mitigating climate change. Spurring a Renovation Wave in Europe is now clearly also key to any future economic recovery plan, as we look to rebuild jobs and growth after a pandemic.

The European Commission is due to propose a revised long-term budget for the years 2021-2027. A fresh look at EU funds, together with an unprecedented global health crisis, give us the perfect moment to kickstart the deep renovation wave.

Eurima, the European Insulation Manufacturers Association, as part of the Renovate Europe Campaign, has written to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, asking for the creation of a Renovation Fund for all Europeans.

There is a real risk that the coronavirus pandemic will take the EU backwards, to political fragmentation and social breakdown. Or, we can use this moment at the crossroads to invest in measures that will bind Europeans and the European Union closer together and address inequalities in our society and our homes.

A renovation fund should leverage 100 billion euros a year if the EU is to hit a renovation target of 3% of buildings per year – up from less than 1% now. There are currently around 210 million buildings in Europe that together use more energy and emit more carbon than any other sector of the EU economy.

A focus on the deep energy renovation of buildings across the EU will kickstart our economies, as well as making a real difference to the homes we all know so well. This is why Eurima has also published a report setting out the case for an EU-level scheme for minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings and explaining why they should become the cornerstone of an EU Renovation Wave.

It’s important to correct a common misunderstanding that has emerged during these weeks of lockdown: the idea that reduced social mobility has at least solved climate change. Carbon emissions haven’t fallen as low as many people think during this period of self-isolation.

It’s true that most of us stopped using our cars or public transport, replacing face-to-face meetings with online chats, while office buildings remained empty – unlit and unheated, with no energy used to power a computer or brew a cup of coffee in the staff kitchen.

This has indeed cut carbon emissions from transport and from office buildings. But since we are spending more time inside, we need to have our houses cooled or heated. Power used to work online has shifted from the office to the home, but the associated emissions haven’t disappeared.

Experts predict that carbon emissions will fall between 5.5 and 8% this year. This actually means that, even with draconian restrictions on our movements, the world is still on track to release well over 90% of the carbon emitted in a typical year.

This illustrates something we must learn from the current situation: we need to drastically improve the energy efficiency of our homes.  Spending so much time inside this year can make people think differently about what they will have to deal with in their homes in future.

The best way we see to boost demand for energy-efficient renovation is through the Commission asking each and every EU country to implement minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings.

This means a phase-out of the worst performing buildings, through progressively tightened performance standards, giving security to the market regarding the future direction of building stock.

We can already see that a regular improvement in requirements for new buildings under the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) has led to a real transformation of the market: all new buildings need to be nearly zero energy from the end of this year onwards. We now need something equivalent for renovations.

Today’s health crisis and the Renovation Wave should turn our attention to the 94 percent of buildings that will still be standing in 2050. Today we have lots of missed opportunities. For instance, when renovation works are carried out, energy is often completely forgotten.

People will rebuild and repaint a building but not think to add insulation. Because we don’t have this awareness, there’s no strong demand for innovative renovation. We have to change the debate.

Progressively tightened performance standards will provide missing clarity about decarbonisation for buildings. They will help align perspectives for everyone working in the fragmented building sector.

This will help new solutions and business models to emerge, allowing the finance sector to base offers on a new model. Progressively tightened performance standards will enable professionals, SMEs, architects and others to save time and carry out the training needed for deep renovation.

After the difficult period we are all living through, a Renovation Wave would be good news for the climate, the economy, and homeowners. Reducing energy demand through efficient renovation leads to a dramatic improvement in thermal comfort in winter and summer, as well as to reduced energy bills.

Let’s use renovation to improve conditions in the homes that have sheltered us through these dark days.

Pascal Eveillard is the director for sustainable construction of the Saint-Gobain Group, and the chairman of Eurima, the European Insulation Manufacturers Association.

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