EU agreement on 2050 climate neutrality can help spur a renovation wave

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

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During Commission president Von der Leyen’s mandate, over 30 million buildings will need to be deeply renovated to stay on track to achieve the 2050 climate-neutrality objective. Succeeding in this will make her a true climate champion, having directly improved the quality of life of millions of EU citizens.

Most of the buildings in 2050 already exist today

Most people in the year 2050 will live in the very same buildings that we occupy today. There are over two hundred million buildings in the EU that together emit more CO2 than any other sector. Decreasing and decarbonizing the energy used to heat, cool and use these buildings is crucial for the transition to a climate-neutral Europe.

Our homes, offices and schools urgently need to be upgraded to become more energy- and carbon-efficient, as well as more comfortable, healthy and affordable, for current and future generations. Investing in building renovations helps the millions of EU citizens who are still unable to keep their homes adequately warm. Better insulated buildings can also better protect people from extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, and from cold winters.

But the speed at which buildings are renovated, to lower energy bills, create thermal comfort and reduce carbon emissions, is incredibly slow. Merely 0.2% – 0.3% of the EU buildings are deeply renovated each year. At this rate, it would take up to 500 years to reach a decarbonized and high-quality building stock in the EU.

A renovation wave across Europe

This has to change. At the EU summit on 12-13 December, Europe has a chance to show leadership and set out to become the first climate-neutral continent, for the sake of our planet, our health and our prosperity. Such a decision will help steer investments in the renovation of the existing building stock. Buildings will need to be upgraded and decarbonised in less than 30 years, instead of the current 500 years’ trajectory.

This will be a challenge, but also a huge opportunity. Accelerating renovations can create 1 million jobs in the next decade, while making better and more affordable buildings a reality for all EU citizens.

The European Commission has therefore announced it will initiate a ‘renovation wave’ as part of the European Green Deal, expected later this month. The aim should be to make building renovations more affordable, attractive and accessible to people.  Industrialised energy renovations, such as Energiesprong, can significantly lower the cost, hassle and time it takes to renovate buildings.

To support people who are not able to make renovation decisions, because they are not building owners, further regulatory action will be needed.  Increasingly higher quality standards for public and rental buildings need to be introduced to make sure leaky schools and houses become something of the past.

Reduce emissions to net-zero across buildings’ entire lifespan

But buildings’ impact on the climate crisis is larger than the ‘operational’ emissions from their heating, cooling and lighting. ‘Embodied’ emissions – from manufacturing materials and constructing buildings, as well as end-of-life disposal – represent a growing share of total lifecycle emissions of new buildings.

Emissions need to be reduced to net-zero across buildings’ entire lifespan by 2050, if we are to achieve a climate-neutral Europe. This is why Eurima, the European Insulation Manufacturers Association, has this week committed itself to developing a climate-neutral building stock by 2050.

Such a climate-neutral building stock cannot be realised without an enabling policy framework. Policies need to set criteria for both operational and embodied emissions in the transition to net-zero carbon buildings. A new circular economy action plan for the construction sector should tackle the barriers in the way of increasing circularity through reuse and recycling. For instance, landfilling construction waste is often cheaper than recycling it.

The building sector is vital in the transition to climate neutrality. No other sector in the EU uses more energy or emits more carbon dioxide. And no other sector offers such an enormous opportunity to make a positive difference to people’s lives.

Read more in Eurima’s new policy briefing ‘A climate-neutral building stock: Mineral wool’s important contribution to bringing EU greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

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