‘Efficiency First’ will deliver – let’s start with renovating our buildings

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

The hard-won recognition that efficiency is a source of energy in its own right is not just a pillar of the EU's Energy Union, it is a guiding principle of the International Energy Agency too, says Adrian Joyce. [Andrew Gustar / Flickr]

There is a simple truth about EU climate policy: If it does not put energy efficiency first, it will not meet its objectives cost-effectively. And if it does not try to do that, it may not meet them at all, writes Adrian Joyce.

Adrian Joyce is campaign director at Renovate Europe, a political communications campaign with the ambition to reduce the energy demand of the EU building stock by 80% by 2050.

Energy consumption is rising again in Europe after a long period of decline. Eurostat figures released last month show a spike in 2015 that continued through 2016.

We are now four percentage points south of the EU’s 2020 target of cutting our primary energy use by a fifth, and heading in the wrong direction. At the same time, our greenhouse gas emissions registered their first increase since 2010 in 2015 – by a small, but still significant 0.6%.

The official 2016 figures are not out yet, and it would be wrong to race to judgement. But with Europe’s economy picking up again last year – traditionally the harbinger of an emissions spike – complacency about the EU’s climate performance now could be a fatal mistake.

Experts from the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) explain that “Energy Efficiency First is a powerful approach to energy policy that can save families and businesses billions of euros in energy costs annually, improve energy security, and accelerate progress toward Europe’s goals for carbon reduction and a clean energy economy”. Energy Efficiency first is purely common sense and we even have the solutions today.

Rather than prioritising new energy supply, EU Member States must understand ‘Energy Efficiency First’ to be more than a slogan and should accordingly first evaluate the opportunity for reducing the energy demand – and here reducing the energy demand in our existing building stock would be an obvious place to start and to redirect national investments.

The Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance recently reported that “Nearly three-quarters of the EU’s 2030 clean energy investment gap is accounted for by energy efficiency in buildings. This gap, which stands around €130 billion per year, is also geographically concentrated in Central and East European Member States.”

Europe is committed to a rapid and systemic clean energy transformation, based on the recommendations of the planet’s best climate scientists. To that end, the European Commission says in its 2016 Clean Energy For All Europeans: “Putting energy efficiency first reflects the fact that the cheapest and cleanest source of energy is the energy that does not need to be produced or used.” This is also the case in buildings!

The case for the job-creating, pollution-curbing, health-enhancing, money-saving solution to climate change that energy efficiency represents, should not need restating. But let us recap for, as the EU’s Energy and Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, said at Renovate Europe Day 2017 in October, “Europe will not achieve our [climate] objectives without renovating our building stock.”

The hard-won recognition that efficiency is a source of energy in its own right is not just a pillar of the EU’s Energy Union, it is a guiding principle of the International Energy Agency too.   Indeed, the IEA found that by cutting energy waste, developing countries could achieve universal energy cover, while using 50-80% less energy.

Think of all the money this could save for ending hunger, preventing disease, educating the illiterate and preparing for the onset of the climate change that is already unavoidable.

The multiple benefits of energy efficiency in buildings also exist in our own countries – from curbing energy poverty to cleaner and safer streets – and improved energy security.  An ambitious cost-effective renovation strategy in south-eastern Europe could cut overall gas consumption by 70% in just two decades, according to one study by the Buildings Performance Institute Europe.

This is the untapped potential that energy efficiency holds – and it is most densely concentrated in heat-leaking, poorly insulated homes that cost EU states in health budgets as well as energy bills.

Across Europe, millions of households and businesses have already benefitted enormously from energy renovation, while reducing their carbon emissions.

When it comes to delivering more, now is the time to raise our game. It is not the time to take our eyes off the ball or – worse – to start lobbying for a different and dirtier game altogether.

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