It’s high time to make the EU’s buildings directive fit for 2030 and beyond

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

The European Union needs to mainstream deep renovation thinking and make it standard practice, writes Oliver Rapf. [Stef / Flickr]

The make-or-break decade for deep cuts in energy consumption and carbon emissions has already begun, writes Oliver Rapf. Now it’s time to radically revise our legislation, in particular the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), he argues.

Oliver Rapf is executive director of the Buildings Performance Institute Europe.

The recently published report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) signals “a code red for humanity” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The report is the first major review of the science of climate change since 2013, and it comes at a critical moment of heightened public awareness and experience of the real and imminent danger of extreme weather events.

The IPCC scientists are hopeful that if global emissions are halved by 2030 on the way to net-zero by 2050, then we can halt and possibly reverse the rise in temperatures.

In Europe, policymakers have started to take action and the European Commission’s “Fit for 55” proposals released in July mark the beginning of a reform process to align the EU’s laws and policies with its 2030 climate target. However, more needs to be done in the buildings sector.

As it is a major contributor to the bloc’s emissions (40% of the final energy consumption, with fossil fuels providing 80% of the energy), we must make sure that our buildings legislation is fit for purpose and aimed squarely at the 2030 target of more than halving emissions.

The European Commission has already signalled this: in October 2020, the Renovation Wave Communication noted the intention to open the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) for revision by end of 2021 – four years ahead of its planned review.

This revision is a make-or-break opportunity to make the EPBD ‘fit for 2030’, with a perspective to 2050, so that the buildings sector will contribute fully to the achievements of our collective climate targets.

It is time for a clarified and more ambitious vision for the building stock, integrating whole-life carbon considerations next to the Energy Efficiency First principle: the building stock must be net zero energy and carbon over the whole lifecycle by 2050.

It also means leaving no one behind: in the design of all policies and support measures, particular attention should go to the alleviation of energy poverty and the achievement of a just and fair transition towards carbon neutrality. From 2018 Eurostat data, we know that nearly 34 million Europeans cannot afford to adequately heat their homes.

Targeted support and particular attention for energy-poor households, along with low- and middle-income households, must be mainstreamed in the EPBD revision.

We must also raise our building standards to match the increased urgency of climate action. This means enshrining standards to achieve climate-neutrality for all buildings in the revised EPBD.

We should update standards for new buildings, going beyond the current nZEB (nearly-zero energy building) definition, which also set the precedent for decarbonisation, as a benchmark for renovation.

Our recent analysis found significant shortcomings in national legislation, although new buildings must be nearly-zero energy since the beginning of this year.

Even if many countries formally comply with the legislation, quite a few countries have adopted a ‘bland’ definition of nZEB, which of course makes the fact that all new buildings must be NZEB as of January 2021 less impressive and limits the impact of such a ground-breaking rule.

Thus, current nZEB definitions are simply not sufficient to fully decarbonise the building stock for a climate-neutral 2050.

Reform is also needed for the cost-optimal methodology, used to set minimum energy performance requirements for buildings. The guidelines should not put cost optimality at the core of decision-making but rather climate-neutrality.

Future-proofing buildings so that they can protect and shelter us means also considering climate adaptation and resilience when setting building performance requirements.

It’s important to note here that upgrading both nZEB and cost-optimality methodology are two measures that could really change the way the market operates, but for best results, they should be done in tandem. One without the other would be less effective

Finally, we need to mainstream deep renovation thinking and make it standard practice. Leadership matters too, and public authorities have an opportunity to act as an exemplar by using high performing public buildings. Being fit for the 2030 and 2050 climate targets means reaching an annual 3% deep renovation rate and an associated reduction of 60% GHG emissions by 2030 according to our analysis.

This can only happen with an ecosystem of transformative policies for the whole building stock.

At a minimum, the new EPBD policy drivers must include Minimum Performance Standards to drive the annual deep renovation rate up from 0.2% to 3%; leverage all financing options (including ETS revenues, Energy Efficiency Obligation Schemes, and Recovery Plans) for deep renovation; strengthen national renovation strategies with reliable data, and better integrate buildings into the wider energy system.

Throughout the EPBD revision process, we must keep in mind that buildings are for people. For the Renovation Wave to succeed, it must truly benefit tenants and building owners. Certainly, there is room for improvement in the quality of energy performance certificates frameworks.

There is also an opportunity to develop other tools, especially one-stop-shops and building renovation passports, to guide homeowners in their renovation journey and ensure that all renovations are aligned with the 2050 vision for the building stock.

A net zero energy and carbon built environment is a public good: it will shelter us from the inevitable storms ahead.

To paraphrase Guterres’ remarks on the IPCC report: If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. I call upon all stakeholders and institutions to embrace the momentum and to ensure that the EPBD revision is a success.

There is no time for delay and no room for excuses.

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