Public and new buildings must lead the energy transition

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

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Each EU country must ensure that at least 3% of the floor area of buildings owned by public bodies are renovated every year – including hospitals and schools, not just buildings owned and occupied by central government, write Jutta Paulus and Ciarán Cuffe.

Jutta Paulus is a German MEP from the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. Ciarán Cuffe is an Irish MEP also affiliated with the Greens/EFA.

The climate crisis demands that public authorities lead the energy transition in both policy and practice. The best place to start is in our immediate surroundings; we must deeply renovate and fully decarbonise the buildings in which we work and live every day.

To achieve this, the European legislative framework for sustainable buildings, notably, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) must work in harmony to enable deep renovation and new construction of a social and climate-friendly built environment.

Public authorities leading by example

The necessity and urgency of government leadership in this area is reflected in Article 6 of the Energy Efficiency Directive, which emphasises the exemplary role of public buildings.

This article requires, inter alia, that each member state ensures that at least 3% of the floor area of buildings owned by public bodies are renovated every year up to nearly zero energy building (NZEB) standard.

In July 2021, the European Commission launched its recast proposal for a revised Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) within the “Fit for 55” package, which aims to reach at least 55% net greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030 in line with the European Green Deal.

This revision of the Energy Efficiency Directive presents a unique opportunity to further strengthen the energy efficiency policy framework and ensure that action on energy efficiency becomes a true priority.

That’s why we strongly support the European Commission’s proposals to widen the scope of Article 6 to not just include buildings owned and occupied by the central government, but other publicly owned buildings such as hospitals and schools.

We also welcome the proposed increase in ambition for renovation, from minimum requirements to the new Zero-Energy Building (ZEB) level, as defined by the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.

We will work for developing a life-cycle approach to building materials in order to tackle the “grey” energy, which is used in their production. Using materials such as wood and nature-based insulation products would store CO2 previously drawn from the atmosphere by plants in the hull of a building – for decades or even centuries.

Under the revised EPBD, we will now be required to monitor the global warming potential of a building’s whole life cycle. This will demonstrate the building’s overall carbon emissions

This is an opportunity not to be missed for governments to lead the movement for climate-proofed buildings.

And this leadership is urgently needed: an in-depth study of the progress in delivering nearly zero energy buildings across six EU regions released this month by BPIE (Buildings Performance Institute of Europe) finds that decarbonisation in new buildings in the EU is happening too slowly and inconsistently.

Europe’s 2050 decarbonisation objectives will be at high risk, unless building policies are revised in line with the climate targets that we need to reach in order to safeguard our collective future.

Future-proofed standards for new buildings

As much as public buildings, new buildings (whether private or public) can also show the market what is possible when excellent design, high-energy performance, and zero-carbon technologies come together.

Exemplars – and plenty of them! – push the boundaries of what is possible, leading to technological innovations and, in turn, lower cost of construction of truly sustainable buildings.

A good start is half the battle and we must start as we mean to go on. European policymakers have an opportunity now to reinvigorate Europe’s sustainable buildings agenda.

We can do this by ensuring that standards for new buildings (nearly zero energy building and then zero emissions building) in the revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive lead the way and be exemplary.

However, we must ensure that we adopt these standards without delay. This means beginning the phase-out of worst-performing by bringing our buildings to the highest feasible energy rating before we’re locked into further carbon emissions.

We also need to adopt the new Zero Energy Building standard for new buildings by 2025 at the latest so that the future building stock is fit for purpose.

Done poorly, new buildings can lock in additional carbon emissions, as BPIE’s study shows that constructing new buildings to anything higher than 50 kWh/m2 /year essentially locks in 80% of 2005-level emissions trajectories to 2050. Simply put, rigorous standards for new builds are essential to achieving climate targets and we must enshrine them in legislation.

Europe needs ambitious policies that can lead the transformation of the building stock, bring benefits to society especially in our schools, hospitals, and care homes, and make a significant contribution to a just and sustainable Europe.

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