New EU buildings rules are crucial to deliver on climate targets

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

The European Union must introduce Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) requiring all existing buildings to meet a minimum energy standard by a given date or a chosen trigger point, such as a sale or a renovation, argues Monica Frassoni. [Sarah Le Clerc / Flickr]

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) must recognise that buildings are a crucial energy infrastructure for Europe, writes Monica Frassoni. By being highly efficient, they can reduce energy demand but also manage, store, and generate renewable energy, she argues.

Monica Frassoni is president of the European Alliance to Save Energy.

Through the agreement on the European Climate Law, the European Union and Member States have committed to become a net-zero economy by 2050 and, on the way, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. Even if science says that the EU should go towards 65% GHG emissions reductions and the European Parliament had asked for 60%, the agreement is a step forward.

But can we deliver? Sure, but we need to be serious and unafraid to take the necessary step to abate emission in key sectors such as buildings.

I am not a number cruncher, but a couple of figures says it all. 75% of the current building stock is not efficient, and most of today’s buildings will still be in use in 30 years. Currently only 1% of the building stock undergoes energy renovations each year, so there is a tremendous gap between today’s reality and the EU’s climate ambitions.

In other words, we are lagging behind, and overcoming this problem implies making fundamental regulatory changes in EU energy legislation.

This is where the review of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) comes in. The EPBD is, in the European Commission plans, one of the legislative pillars to address energy performance and emission of the EU building stock.

Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the Green Deal, said in October 2020 that “at the present rate of restructuring and refurbishing our housing, we will not achieve the (EU climate) goals, we need to double that and that is what we want to do with the Renovation Strategy”, thus putting buildings at the centre of the European Green Deal.

For this to happen, we have all the technologies needed, but we lack the right set of regulatory tools that can trigger better and deeper renovations and attract private investments. In this respect, the EPBD is an enabler of the Renovation Wave, another flagship initiative of the European Green Deal.

To effectively revise the EPBD, policymakers should start from the full application of the Energy Efficiency Fist principle (EE1st). There can be no ifs or buts about that. In the buildings sector the application of the principle is a prerogative for a faster integration of renewables, resource and material efficiency as well as application of circularity principles.

Buildings are active participants in the energy system: by being highly energy efficient, they can reduce energy demand but also manage, store, and generate energy. Therefore, the EPBD must recognise that buildings are a crucial energy infrastructure for Europe and make sure that EE1st is systematically factored into all related policy and investment decisions.

The revision of the EPBD cannot be a success without establishing long-term renovation strategies for all the existing building stock. This was already an obligation of the current directive but only thirteen member states delivered these strategies to date. Such an exercise requires a real commitment to gather relevant data on the building stock and design ambitious renovation milestones.

EU countries dragging their feet on building renovation plans

Only five EU member states have submitted long-term renovation strategies that were due last month under the revised energy performance of buildings directive: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, The Netherlands and Sweden.

In order to facilitate this process, we need to introduce Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) requiring all existing buildings to meet a minimum energy standard by a given date or a chosen trigger point, such as a sale or a renovation. This is not new, and some Member States are already giving the right example. France, for instance, introduced in 2019 a ban on renting poor performing buildings from 2023, as well as an obligation to renovate the worst performing buildings by 2028.

The revised EPBD must also ensure that a highly efficient EU building stock fully integrates demand flexibility and energy storage. In this respect, digitalisation is a key driver for energy efficiency and energy system integration, as most energy efficient technologies are digital. Thanks to high levels of efficiency and digitalisation, new and renovated buildings with lower energy demand, grid balancing functions and storage capacity, can act as a catalyser for the integration of renewables and the transition to a decentralised energy system.

We need to change our mindset regarding the built environment. Buildings are central to the whole energy system and they are evolving, together with the broader system, to create synergies among infrastructure. For example, a neighbourhood approach to energy planning can help local authorities in dealing with waste heat from nearby industrial facilities delivered through district heating networks.

The comprehensive renovation of our building stock is a phenomenal tool to relaunch the EU economy, highly impacted by the pandemic, in a sustainable way. Our continent hosts some of the most innovative and successful energy efficiency companies in the world, European “champions” that export technologies and drive innovation across the globe.

By delivering the multiple economic and environmental benefits of energy efficiency, the new EPBD is a real chance for policy makers to benefit citizens and businesses and allow the EU to deliver on its climate and energy targets.

Construction: The least digitised sector in Europe

Construction sites across the globe are developing rapidly as firms seek to take advantage of the technologies of tomorrow. However, the construction industry is the lowest ranked economic sector in terms of digital uptake globally, and more needs to be done, according to a leading EU industry organisation.

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