Achieving climate neutrality will depend on how we decarbonise our building stock

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

Around 85-95% of today’s buildings will still be in use by 2050, meaning Europe needs to look beyond just new builds to meet efficiency targets, argues Seán Kelly MEP [Michel Christen / EP]

Efficient, technological and smarter buildings should be the cornerstone of Europe’s decarbonisation, but more effort needs to go towards renovating the bloc’s current building stock, writes Seán Kelly.

Seán Kelly is an Irish member of the European Parliament and is the lead author of a parliamentary report on the energy performance of buildings directive.

The European Union is currently undergoing an ambitious systemic shift in production and consumption patterns, needed to align our economic growth with our climate objectives for the upcoming decades.

However, buildings are indispensable for reaching the EU’s carbon neutrality, energy efficiency and renewable energy objectives. Without significant increases in renovations rates, not only will we miss an opportunity to create millions of jobs, but also more importantly we will fail the next generation who will have to deal with the consequences of our inaction.

The European Parliament has consistently advocated and pushed for ambitious EU climate commitments. With the “fit for 55” package, we stand over the largest single batch of legislation to tackle climate change proposed by any government anywhere.

Ambition, married with a healthy dose of realism and practicality as well as resources, will be needed to actually achieve the high targets we set ourselves.

Reaching our climate targets without decarbonising our living and working spaces quite frankly seems impossible. Indeed, they are responsible for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of the energy consumption in the EU.

Yet, in today’s Europe, 75% of buildings are not energy efficient, mostly because many of them were constructed before the current requirements were in place.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive is the main EU-level legal instrument for decarbonising Member States’ building stock and should be the driving force to increase the scale and speed of the renovation of building stock through new innovative policy measures as suggested in the Renovation Wave.

There are numerous potential environmental, social and economic benefits associated with energy efficiency renovation, leading to energy savings, lower emissions, reduced energy bills for households and job creation, as well as improving European competitiveness and economic resilience.

About 85-95% of today’s buildings will still be in use by 2050, showing the dire need to upgrade the energy efficiency of existing buildings. We cannot just concern ourselves with new builds.

Where are we right now? Well, the answer is: not where we need to be. The building renovation rate is currently around 1% per year, which is very low. This really needs to start increasing to around 3% or higher.

The submitted Long Term Renovation Strategies have in general broadly respected the requirements of the EPBD. However, the level of detail and ambition provided varies considerably from one Member State to another, as not all have embraced the potential of the Renovation Wave.

Although we have seen improvements, there is significant unexploited energy-efficiency potential in buildings renovation. This is notably due to sub-optimal transposition, lack of adequate funding and other barriers.

The revised EPBD needs to tackle these issues as much as possible in synergy with other legislation, such as the Renewable Energy Directive and Energy Efficiency Directive.

A more efficient, technically equipped and smarter building stock should be the cornerstone of a decarbonised energy system. The revision of the EPBD should serve to further promote smart buildings technologies in new builds and retrofits to in turn increase energy efficiency and system integration.

This integrated system approach must embrace the circular economy for both urban and rural developments to enhance resource and energy efficiency – such as district heating or smart charging points.

The revision should also serve to foster a data-centric approach. In this regard, it will be pivotal to create a framework to leverage the use of data to improve transparency, develop benchmarks and guide policy decisions as well as reduce actual energy consumption.

Buildings need to also be recognised as a contributor to the flexibility of the energy system, through energy production, storage and demand response, as well as green charging stations for electric vehicles.

Ever since 2018, our ability to utilise data has dramatically improved. The Revised EPBD needs to ensure comparability. In particular, not all long-term renovation strategies provide greenhouse gas emission reduction data, making it difficult to assess the ambition of the strategies in terms of climate mitigation.

Carbon emissions can be reduced at every stage of the building’s lifecycle, especially through the use and deployment of emergent technologies, such 3D modelling and simulation and artificial intelligence.

To put it bluntly, reaching carbon neutrality will depend on how we try to decarbonise our building stock.

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