Europe takes ‘baby steps’ to revamp public buildings

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This article is part of our special report Energy efficient buildings : Powering Europe.

A year-long fight over renovation rates for public buildings in Europe has resulted in "a brilliant architecture" for revamping the existing stock, the European Parliament's chief negotiator has announced. But only central government "owned and occupied" buildings will be concerned, leaving whole sections unaddressed.

The draft Energy Efficiency Directive, which introduces a 3% renovation rate for all central government "owned and occupied" buildings in Europe, has entered the final straight.

Next Wednesday (13 June), negotiators from the European Commission, the European Parliament and the EU member states will try to hammer down a compromise on the proposed text. If they fail, negotiations will have to be postponed until 2013, when Ireland takes over the EU's rotating presidency.

But regardless of the negotiation's final outcome, governments have already won a solid EU legal base for renovating public buildings, said Claude Turmes, the Green MEP from Luxembourg who is the chief Parliament negotiator on the draft efficiency bill.

“We have won a brilliant architecture for countries to achieve energy efficiency,” Turmes told reporters yesterday (7 June). 

Defining the steps needed to implement energy-efficiency refurbishments at national level, introducing targets and measures as well as the notion of “deep renovation” are some of the strongest achievements in the latest round of talks, Turmes said.

“Energy efficiency and building renovations will be an important part of the growth [initiative]" due to be launched at the next EU summit on 28 June, Turmes added, referring to the European growth agenda championed by the new French President François Hollande.

Setting the example

Public buildings – including those at regional and local levels – represent only 12% of the EU's building stock but the Commission believes governments should set the example for private owners. As public spending represents around 19% of the Union's gross domestic product, this would make it a potential key driver for the nascent energy-efficiency services and products market, which targets buildings as a priority.

An obligation for central governments to refurbish their buildings would also make sense economically, according to supporters of the directive. By decreasing their energy bills, public authorities could free up limited budgets for other purposes, argued  British MEP Fiona Hall (Liberals and Democrats).

Claude Turmes, the chief Parliament negotiator, is hoping that "renovation roadmaps" will appear in the final text of the directive, a measure which he says would see 80% of the existing building stock revamped by 2050 in comparison with 2010 levels.

The United Kingdom, Turmes said, is ready to support roadmaps in exchange for keeping the scope of public building renovations as low as possible. He believes it will be easier to get a deal on the roadmaps rather than waste efforts in trying to extend the scope of the directive to cover more public buildings.

Ambitions watered down

In fact, the renovation of public buildings has  been one of the most controversial issues in the directive since negotiations began.

In 2011, the European Commission proposed a 3% renovation rate that would target public buildings with a total useful floor area of over 250 square meters, an objective which activists already criticised for being too weak. 

But member states later restricted this requirement further to include only "central government-owned" and "occupied" buildings, "with a useful floor area of over 500 m2". As of 9 July 2015, this would need to be lowered down to 250 m2. 

The rewording resulted in significant reductions in scope for many countries. Whilst in Sweden, France and the Netherlands many buildings are owned by the central government, this is not the case in Germany, where regional authorities own most public buildings.

As a result, Germany will have to refurbish only around 37 public buildings. Similarly, in the UK, many buildings owned by the central government are historic and would be exempt from this requirement.

'Baby step'

Public authorities see building renovation as an expenditure, said Adrian Joyce, secretary-general of EuroAce, a trade group representing companies involved in the energy savings goods and services industry.

"The main challenges are financial and working on public buildings is costly," Joyce said. "But treating energy efficiency expenditure as public spending is wrong, because you get a return on money very fast," he contended.

The objective of the EU's energy efficiency bill is so low on public buildings at the moment, that the central governments will not be seen as leaders in this field, Joyce added. "It's a baby step".

By making sure the obligation covers only “central government owned and occupied” buildings, EU member states narrowed down the potential energy savings from 4.2 to 0.4 million tonnes of oil equivalent, which translates into a higher dependency on energy imports. 

This is despite the fact that member states' energy import costs soared to over €400 billion in 2011 alone. “It is very brutal how the input of energy drags down the economy,” Turrmes said. 

Philip Lowe, the European Commission’s director general for Energy Efficiency, warned this shortfall in energy savings will also mean the continuation of avoidable capital outflow from the EU economy via energy imports.

Europe aims to reduce its primary energy use by 20% by 2020, a target which is not legally binding.

The Energy Efficiency Directive was proposed by the European Commission in mid-2011 as part of its effort to reach this objective.

To achieve this, the EU needs to more than doubles its energy savings efforts, according to the Commission's estimates.

In its draft directive, the Commission proposed individual measures for each of the sectors that could play a role in reducing energy consumption, including a controversial obligation on energy companies to reduce their deliveries to customers by 1.5% each year.

  • 13 June: Last 'trialogue' talks between the Council, Commission and Parliament (these exclude the regular non-political, technical meetings) in this first (and possibly last) reading.
  • 1 July 2012: Cyprus takes over the EU presidency from Denmark.
  • Friends of Earth Europe: Website

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