Revision of EU buildings law offers chance for ‘multiple benefits’ wins

Fitting insulation, just one of a whole host of building performance-enhancing measures, can lead to many benefits. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Energy performance of buildings.

Renovating existing buildings and making sure new builds are fit for purpose are the crucial tenets of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which is being voted in the European Parliament’s industry committee this week. EURACTIV.com takes a closer look at the detail of the revised bill.

On Wednesday (11 October), members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) will vote on the draft report on the directive, penned by Danish centre-right lawmaker Bendt Bendtsen.

The vote comes a month after the environment committee (ENVI) adopted its own opinion on the directive, in which MEPs decided to clarify what “decarbonised building stock” actually means and to put increased focus on indoor air quality.

EU lawmakers back 40% energy efficiency target for 2030

MEPs agreed on Thursday (7 September) to raise the bloc’s proposed energy efficiency targets post-2020 in order to improve chances of meeting EU obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Bendtsen has managed to put together a draft report that enjoys strong support from all the main political groups, with only one compromise amendment looking doubtful ahead of the vote.

The Danish lawmaker has brokered an amendment that defines decarbonised building stock as “building stock performing to Nearly Zero-Energy Building (nZEB) level”.

This definition is backed by all nearly political groups in the European Parliament but Bendtsen has not yet secured support from his own group, the European People’s Party (EPP), which is also the largest in the assembly. It is still unclear whether MEPs will vote against the compromise amendment 5a or merely abstain. The latter option would see it pass unhindered to the final report.

Building efficiency is playing a crucial role in the EU’s drive to decarbonise the economy, meet its climate goals and improve public health. Inefficient buildings, after all, require more energy and are often detrimental to people with respiratory illnesses.

While the Emissions Trading System (ETS), power plant emissions limits and renewable energy targets are large-scale examples of climate action and efforts to cut energy use, improving building performance is seen as a potentially equally effective measure that is literally right on our doorstep.

Changes in the air

The revision of the directive aims to tap into the enormous energy-saving potential that still remains unused in the building stock, given that annual renovation rates are only between 0.4 and 1.2%, depending on the member state.

A big part of the EPBD revision is the requirement for national roadmaps and strategies, where member states will be obligated to hit certain milestones in their decarbonisation efforts. As each country has different building portfolios, an EU-wide one-size-fits-all strategy was never a serious option.

And it is not just a case of installing a new carpet or better windows either. Europe’s building stock, both residential and non-residential, accounts for 36% of CO2 emissions and 40% of the EU’s primary energy consumption. A grand total of 75% of the stock remains inefficient.

Just 1% of new constructions are nZEB and a recent publication by the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that this will have to rise to 40% by 2050 if the Paris Agreement’s 2 degrees Celsius global-warming target is to be met.

Inaction on building renovation is ‘costing lives’

Energy efficiency renovation can alleviate fuel poverty and bring a raft of health and societal benefits. While the EU could do more to boost renovation, several governments have shown that effective answers can be found at a national level.

Trigger points

As things stand, renovations are only carried out when it makes financial sense and when the proper incentives are in place to justify the investment.

Bendtsen told EURACTIV.com that “public money does not solve everything. Private investors need security and energy efficiency projects offer that”.

That is why his report also amended the Commission’s proposal to include ‘trigger points’, where a building’s energy efficiency would be improved at an opportune moment, for example, during a necessary or scheduled renovation, or as part of an agreement between tenants.

There are many synergies between the EPBD and its broader piece of sister-legislation, the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED), which is also doing the rounds in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Lawmakers in the Parliament’s environment committee recently backed a 40% energy efficiency target in the EED, ramping up the ambition of the Commission’s initial 30% legally-binding proposal and the member states’ 27% suggestion.

A 40% target enjoys wide support among building performance experts, as that alone would push renovation rates up to 3% and could create a million jobs, as well as doing wonders for investor confidence and lowering energy imports.

Ambition really is the watchword to look out for in the energy efficiency talks, especially given the results of an in-depth study commissioned by the EU executive into the potential benefits of doing more with less energy.

Cambridge Econometrics essentially found that the higher the ambition, the greater the benefits. For example, research showed that a 40% 2030 efficiency target could increase GDP by 4%, create 3 million new jobs and save €77bn in annual healthcare costs.

They also claimed that a 47% cut in greenhouse gas emissions could be attainable by pursuing the higher efficiency target.

Insulation a day keeps the doctor away

Public health was given top billing in ENVI’s opinion and now ITRE will be expected to follow suit on ensuring it is made a central part of the final legislation.

Renovations are now even being used as a healthcare tool by doctors, in order to improve patient well-being, cut down on the number of appointments and reduce costs. Ireland, for example, is trialling a scheme that provides free insulation to certain people that suffer from respiratory illnesses.

One French group has estimated that an ambitious national renovation strategy could create over 100,000 jobs and cut healthcare costs by three-quarters of a billion euros. This is in addition to emissions reduction benefits and increased security of supply.

Renovation is about more than just energy savings

The multiple benefits of building renovation programmes include known advantages in terms of reduced energy bills and job creation. But less is known about other benefits like avoided healthcare costs, and even higher exam success rates for students, writes Adrian Joyce.

Warm and secure

Improved building performance also has the potential to play a significant role in increasing Europe’s security of supply, one of the main objectives of the EU’s ambitious Energy Union plans.

Many countries in Eastern Europe face security of supply issues, due to dependence on gas to heat homes and businesses, and a lack of diversity in sourcing their fuel.

According to one recent study, Slovakia and Hungary face a “severe risk” of not being able to provide heating, while Bulgaria is in an even more precarious situation. Energy Union policies, including increased interconnection and an emphasis on diversification of suppliers, are intended to mitigate this, but there is also potential in more efficient buildings.

It is estimated that building renovation could cut gas needs by 70% over the next two decades. Admittedly, the upfront costs involved would run into tens of billions of euros but the end gains outweigh the investment, through reduced fuel bills alone.

Central-Eastern European pipeline gets go-ahead

An ambitious gas pipeline project connecting Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria received a shot in the arm on Thursday (28 September), when all of the involved parties signed a memorandum of understanding for the project, a vital part of Europe’s efforts to wean itself off Russian gas.

Electric cars: An unnecessary add-on?

The Commission has also seized upon the EPBD revision to push its electro-mobility agenda. In the initial proposal, the EU executive wanted all new non-residential buildings with more than ten parking spaces to be fitted with electric-vehicle charging points.

ENVI’s opinion downgraded that significantly to merely ensuring that the same amount of parking spaces are equipped with the infrastructure needed to eventually install the charging facilities. It is likely that ITRE will back a similar amendment to the proposal.

When EU environment minister agreed on their so-called “general approach” in June, the member states also diluted the EU executive’s proposal. Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete said it was a “significant reduction” in the Commission’s ambition and claimed that the Council had reduced the scope by 96%.

The Commission will announce its proposals on decarbonising the transport sector on 8 November. It is still unclear to what extent those plans will rely on EV charging infrastructure.

Commission laments member states' lack of ambition on energy saving laws

The EU’s 28 energy ministers on Monday (26 June) agreed on a general approach to the revisions of two key energy efficiency directives. But the European Commission lamented a “significant reduction” in ambition compared with its original proposals.

Once MEPs agree on their common position, the ITRE committee will decide whether the file should go to a full sitting of the plenary or proceed straight to trilateral talks.

A meeting of the three main EU institutions behind closed doors during the trialogue process is already pencilled in for 7 November. It can only become law once a compromise is hammered out.

Bendtsen assured EURACTIV that he is confident of securing thumbs-up from ITRE and that a full showdown in plenary session will not be necessary. Wednesday’s vote will reveal all.