The Pathway to Sustainable Construction: Reading the Signs

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

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Olympia Dolla is Sustainable Construction Manager at EURIMA, the European Insulation Manufacturers Association.

Europe has set out to be a world leader in the fight against climate change, showing others the way to climate neutrality by 2050. The construction industry can help Europe on that journey to sustainable growth and low emissions. But the road to sustainability is long and winding. The European Commission late last year launched talks on finding the best pathway to an ever greener, more resilient and digital construction ecosystem. We must take a moment to look at the signs pointing us along our way.

We have today an EU Construction Products Regulation (CPR) that is, and should remain, key to a well-functioning, transparent and competitive internal market. Any pathway to a circular, “resilient, green and digital” construction industry in Europe should be mapped out with the CPR.

Tackling climate change by reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency should always mean good “circular” thinking. It can sometimes mean ensuring products have a resource use at their end of life. It can mean looking at the use of recycled content for new products and buildings, or the recyclability of different materials used. For the construction industry, it must mean good communication between everyone involved in a building’s lifespan: from the designer to the user, right on to those handling end-of-life dismantling.

This joined up thinking in a Circular Economy can and should be supported by the CPR, by ensuring that EU and national policies link together efficiently. Where, for instance, countries need mandate deconstruction over demolition to ensure construction materials are properly recovered and separated. For this to happen, there must be a push by setting EU targets for the recovery of recyclable materials. This will act as a “push” to encourage national action, while also improving the economic balance between secondary and virgin raw materials.

The CPR shows us much of the way to sustainable construction. Over recent years we have seen other EU plans and policies, developed by different Commission departments, that move us further along the path.

The revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), proposed by the Commission last December, aims to establish a highly energy-efficient and decarbonised EU building stock by 2050. This is the first legislative milestone on a pathway to reducing whole lifecycle carbon (WLC) emissions from buildings.

The proposal suggests a definition of ‘zero-emissions building’ for new buildings and renovations, as well as a requirement to disclose the life-cycle Global Warming Potential of large new buildings. Most provisions set out in the proposal however do not give details beyond 2030. This is both too late and not clear enough, as a direction of travel. If we truly want the pathway to a green buildings in Europe, we already need signs of where to travel over the coming decade, and of what the landscape will look like when that deadline has passed.

Mandatory minimum performance standards in the EPBD ought to be raised over time. They can help us to meet to meet multiple challenges of energy poverty, energy security and energy transition. The path towards net zero WLC emissions from buildings means a progressive tightening of a WLC threshold, until this threshold reaches net zero. This has to be in line with national building renovation plans and communicated well in advance, so that building owners and buyers know what they are working towards in 2030, 2040 and 2050.

The journey can be eased by, for instance, making full use of an existing system known as Level(s). Level(s) is a voluntary programme used to assess the energy performance of buildings, as well as other elements such as resource use, comfort, and resilience to climate change. It is based on an EU standard for assessing the sustainability of construction works across their whole life cycle, known as EN15978. This works alongside a product level standard, itself known as 15804. This has helped support sustainable construction, supporting product manufacturers for instance in developing building life cycle assessments. But we now need more than voluntary guidelines.

For Level(s) to deliver the full benefits of sustainable construction on a circular economy, it should become more than voluntary guidelines throughout the EU. We need legislation to assess the full sustainability performance of buildings. This can then be the foundation for future EU building policies, bringing together climate, sustainability, and circularity. Any life cycle assessment of buildings’ climate environmental impact can use Level(s) to ensure a fair, consistent, Europe-wide approach.

The ambitions of the European Green Deal can only become reality by tapping the potential of the EU built environment and the construction sector.  An industry that helps everyone to enjoy highly energy efficient, healthy and comfortable buildings, bringing down energy use and energy bills.

Because we are moving into a new world. One in which truly resilient, sustainable companies adapt to change – and to climate change, by exploiting the full potential of policies and technologies available to them.

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