Energy performance of buildings: Time to put efficiency first

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

Renovating the EU's old buildings should be a priority for the sake of consumers, the economy and the environment. [kay roxby/Shutterstock]

Ever been too hot at work on a sunny June day? Too cold in your sitting room on a January evening? The energy performance of buildings affects all our lives directly, every day, writes Arianna Vitali.

Arianna Vitali is senior policy officer at WWF European Policy Office.

Buildings currently represent about 40% of the EU’s energy consumption. Three in four are not yet energy efficient. Carefully and expensively heated or cooled air escapes through flimsy walls, skinny ceilings and is lost, warming the climate instead of the people in the building.

EU legislation – the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) – currently says owners must improve the energy performance of a building when a major renovation is to be carried out. This means only about 1% of buildings per year are renovated for energy efficiency improvements. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that waiting a century for all our buildings to be less wasteful of energy is perhaps too long.

Unfortunately, a chance to improve the situation was just spectacularly blown by EU energy ministers. Last week they agreed to an unambitious revision of the EPBD which would do little to encourage renovations.

Luckily, the European Parliament is looking more ambitious on the subject. In his draft report on the EPBD revision, MEP Bendt Bendtsen suggests making energy efficiency improvements in buildings compulsory at moments when it causes the least disruption. Amendments suggested by other lawmakers strengthen this further.

This makes a lot of sense. It is like when workers are digging up your street to lay power cables, it is efficient and logical to have to combine it with a check on the water pipes.

These so-called “trigger points” for energy efficiency measures in buildings could be, for example, when the building is being put up for rental or sale, or when extension, repair or maintenance work is being carried out. This makes energy renovations less disruptive and more economically advantageous than at other times.

But we need to go further still. The EPBD should require EU member states to have their worst performing buildings renovated, capitalising on the trigger points, to ensure none are left in the lowest efficiency categories as of 1 January 2023.

Such a measure would have a direct impact on citizens, by reducing their energy bills and cutting fuel poverty. Altogether, changing the legislation in this way would reduce total EU final energy consumption in 2030 by 40-45 million tonnes of oil equivalent – about the same as that of the Netherlands, according to the Commission’s own impact assessment.

It also makes sense for business – it would generate as much as €55bn per year for the European construction industry.

It would also bring major benefits to the climate, cutting our use of fossil fuels for heating.

Some countries are already halfway there. For example, from April 2018 in the UK it will only be possible to rent out buildings whose energy performance is classed as level E or above. This measure was adopted to protect those tenants that were living in the most inefficient buildings and who were unable to pay their energy bills or heat their homes adequately.

The energy performance of buildings may seem a technical or remote issue, but there is nothing less remote than shivering with cold, nothing less technical than being simply unable to pay a too-high fuel bill.

So let’s put efficiency first. Because doing so means putting European citizens and consumers first too.

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