French citizens want better homes. Why are politicians standing in their way?

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

France’s President Emmanuel Macron (C) during a Citizens' Convention on Climate, in Paris, France, 14 December 2020. [EPA-EFE/Thibault Camus]

If it enshrines into its upcoming climate bill mandatory building renovation, France will answer the Citizens’ Convention on Climate’s call for better homes and contribute significantly to the EU’s 55% emission reduction target by 2030, writes Etienne Charbit.

Etienne Charbit is the energy efficiency project manager at CLER – Réseau pour la Transition Énergétique.

The building sector is the largest single energy consumer in Europe: our building stock accounts for 36% of EU carbon emissions. As things stand, this makes it impossible for Europe to become a climate neutral economy and cut our emissions by least 55% by 2030. To meet these targets, we’ll need to embark on serious renovation of buildings across the continent.

Right now, most renovations save between 9% and 17% of a building’s energy usage. Instead, we need to be aiming for ‘deep’ renovations – improvement works that save 60% or more of energy usage, and speed us on our way to seriously cutting carbon emissions.

The problem is current measures struggle to properly incentivise or fund serious renovation projects. A patchwork of weak building regulations and unsuitable measures to support citizens make renovations confusing and onerous, and that means our progress is dangerously slow.

However, Europe could be on the brink of a breakthrough in renovating buildings properly. The EU Renovation Wave launched last October has proposed European-level minimum energy performance standards for buildings.

By setting a deadline for a building to meet an energy rating, they have the potential to dramatically speed up renovations and, hence, Europe’s journey to zero-emission buildings. They’re already used successfully in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands.

EU launches 'renovation wave' for greener, more stylish buildings

The European Commission launched a renovation wave and a “new European Bauhaus” on Wednesday (14 October), aiming to rally popular support behind plans to cut emissions from buildings and reduce energy bills.

It’s long been assumed that the public would resist an obligation to renovate their homes. But there are signs from France that public support may have been drastically underestimated.

After the gilets jaunes protests, a deliberative process called the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate was established. Its mandate was to identify policies that would deliver a dramatic reduction in French carbon emissions.

One of the main recommendations in the final Citizens’ Convention on Climate’s report is mandatory deep renovation of buildings by 2040. During the final vote, citizens assessed the measure as a top priority for reducing greenhouse gas emissions: 87.3% of the 150 citizens endorsed this goal together with the overall proposals on building decarbonisation which included financial aids and technical support measures.

It shouldn’t be a huge surprise of course citizens recognise the health and financial benefits of warm, energy-efficient homes. And anyone who’s ever attempted a piece of home improvement realises the benefit of doing a task properly, and the false economy of sticking-plaster solutions that don’t work in the long term.

The Citizens’ Convention recognised that financial incentives and measures taken so far by the French government simply haven’t been effective.

Based on the recommendations of the Citizens’ Convention, the French Government is working on an environmental law which will be presented to the Council of Ministers in February and go through parliament as of March.

The obligation to renovate can improve the energy performance of buildings and significantly reduce emissions from France’s built environment. Only by enshrining into law mandatory deep building renovation will France meet its climate goals and contribute to the new EU emission reduction target of 55% by 2030.

Accompanied by financial aid, especially for low-income households, and practical support initiatives, a deadline for renovation in the next decade can provide vital direction to building owners as they plan and budget for the work needed.

If the citizens’ proposal is watered down, France will also slow its people’s journey to living in warm, healthy, affordable homes. We’re a continent that spends 90% of our time indoors.

People struggling with their household budgets experience energy poverty across Europe. So the quality of the buildings we live in isn’t a whimsical issue: it affects our health, household finances and productivity.

Building renovations improve air quality, control over moisture, damp and draughts, and protection against excessive noise. Without proper action to advance building renovation, policy-makers are leaving these health improvements on the table.

There are economic benefits too. As governments roll out stimulus packages in response to the COVID crisis, building renovations should be an attractive prospect. Research shows that for every €1m invested in the energy renovation of a building, an average of 18 local and long-term jobs are created.

The total investment opportunity for deep renovation of Europe’s buildings is estimated at €243bn a year. And with economic turmoil ahead, there’s growing evidence suggesting that decent energy performance helps a building keep its value. Improving the energy performance of homes could help keep this crucial asset market more stable.

When it comes to warm, energy-efficient buildings, citizens are looking to politicians, and impatiently wondering what’s taking them so long.

Households are waiting for regulatory standards for renovating their homes together with a comprehensive set of initiatives to help them go through this process, including financial aids and one-stop shops for practical advice and information.

France has the opportunity to answer its citizens’ calls for better homes while showing leadership at the European level on the environmental benefits of building renovation.

This is the moment to renovate your buildings, EU tells member states

Now is the time for member states to renovate buildings and make them energy efficient, the EU’s climate chief Frans Timmermans said today (27 October), despite a lack of clarity on minimum requirements at EU level, which won’t be introduced until next year.

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