Commission must not take its eye off the ball for decarbonisation by 2050

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

97% of existing buildings in Europe need partial or deep renovation, says Adrian Joyce. [Sam Saunders / Flickr]

The European Commission will need clarity, nerve and vision to chart a decarbonisation path to 2050 that addresses the nearly 40% of Europe’s emissions that currently come from buildings, writes Adrian Joyce.

Adrian Joyce is director of the Renovate Europe campaign.

The news that 10 EU member states including France, Italy and Spain are demanding that the European Commission chart a “credible and detailed” path to full decarbonisation by 2050 must have come as a surprise at the Berlaymont.

The letter was a stirring clarion call to action that brooked no misunderstanding: “We encourage the Commission to set a clear direction towards net zero GHG emissions in the EU by 2050,” the energy and environment ministers wrote.

Such a direction would have to involve an emergency scaling down of the nearly 40% of our emissions that currently come from buildings. This would mean a major escalation of current renovation efforts. Yet there are some signs that the European Commission may, as far as buildings are concerned, be proposing something much less ambitious, perhaps even taking its eye off the ball completely.

A leaked staff working document last month suggested that the Commission was only modelling scenarios involving a reduction of final energy consumption of between 18-40% in the residential sector between 2030 and 2050. By 2070, it said, these percentages would only have increased “incrementally”.

The Renovate Europe campaign has called for an 80% cut in energy waste from buildings by 2050 – and that call has been backed by MEPs in the European Parliament. It is the least that we need to do to reach our long-term goals.

Some commentators have expressed fears that the strategy in its current shape is far off track to achieve 1.5°C and believe it to be in stark contrast with the urgency of action enshrined in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In the IPCC report, we see that reaching 1.5°C would require building emissions to be reduced by 80–90% by 2050, new construction to be fossil-free and near-zero energy by 2020, and an increased rate of energy refurbishment of existing buildings to 5% per annum in OECD countries.

But we are far from achieving these numbers.

While it was positive that the leaked paper recognised the “huge potential” of highly efficient and decarbonised buildings to accelerate emissions-cutting programmes, it is baffling that it seems to under-utilise that potential in its analysis.  That disconnect between diagnosis and prescription must be rectified in the final version.

Reducing the heat lost by poor thermal insulation in Europe’s buildings is “crucial” to meeting the Paris climate goals, the paper says.  Buildings are Europe’s largest single energy consumer and gas and oil make up around 62% of their total heating inputs.  But the document then takes a neutral-to-positive view of a shallow renovations strategy that, inexplicably, appears to deliver higher energy savings by 2050, but lower ones by 2070.

Similarly, it is well and good to note that heating accounts for 60% of a building’s energy use – 65% in residential homes – but perplexing to then see behavioural change, fuel mix and biomass addressed in greater detail than the significant and permanent CO2 cuts offered by deep energy renovations.

Surprisingly, despite the low rate of new annual constructions, nearly zero energy buildings could still account for as much as a quarter of all Europe’s building stock by 2050, the Commission paper argues. Thanks to the amended Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, these properties “will be fully insulated, and make use of their shell (rooftops, walls and also windows) and soil occupancy to produce renewable electricity from solar PV, solar heat or geothermal heat pumps.”

Even so, the leaked analysis recaps the scale of the renovations challenge in the EU today: 97% of existing buildings need partial or deep renovation; achieving the minimum Paris climate targets will mean more than doubling Europe’s current 1-1.5% renovation rate to 3% per annum, and quickly.

It is to be hoped that renovation efforts in the final paper will be focussed towards deeper energy renovation works at the worst performing end of the building scale, which the document elsewhere says should be prioritised.  Because on their own, the measures discussed in the leaked working paper will not be enough to deliver on the EU’s pledged transition to a low carbon society.

We are reaching a critical stage of the journey and of the energy decarbonisation process itself. From here on in, the stakes will only get higher and the pressures greater. The Commission will need clarity, nerve and vision to chart the path to 2050. It must not take its eye off the ball now and it must give the buildings sector its rightful place in achieving a better Europe.

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