The case for green buildings in the COVID-19 recovery

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

Europe already renovates about 1% of its buildings a year, yet just 0.2% come close to delivering the most energy efficient outcomes, says Peter Sweatman. [Several seconds / Flickr]

By supporting green buildings, the European Commission can simultaneously cut down energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions while improving comfort and health, and supporting Europe’s 18 million construction workers, writes Peter Sweatman.

Peter Sweatman is CEO of Climate Strategy & Partners, a consulting firm.

Europe’s buildings are mostly old and inefficient, and the way we use them is changing as our economies and lifestyles shift in a world recovering from COVID-19.

They are also a huge store of wealth: our homes are worth an estimated €17 trillion – more than the EU’s GDP. It’s time to translate some of these savings into investments and modernise where we live and work.

We can cut down energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions, improve comfort and health, and support Europe’s 18 million construction workers by building a green recovery.

EU urged to bring building ‘renovation wave’ into recovery plan

The European Commission should make its future pandemic recovery plan conditional on commitments to the green transition, says Bendt Bendtsen, a former MEP who is now leading a Danish interest group lobbying for energy efficiency.

This isn’t a new idea. In fact it has been tried by many Governments with mixed successes and some quiet failures. Europe already renovates about 1% of its buildings a year, yet just 0.2% come close to delivering the most energy efficient outcomes. So what’s wrong?

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” jumps to mind. Our homes, schools, hospitals, universities and commercial real-estate isn’t broken. Yet it seems we’d rather let them gradually decay than invest to give them – and us – a new lease of life. The quality of our buildings doesn’t just enable healthier and more productive lives, it is also represents the most significant investment gap, by far, in delivering Europe’s Green Deal and net-zero emissions future.

So what can be done?

Firstly, policymakers need to think big, rebuilding with the sort of citizen engagement and awareness we had with the Marshall plan after the Second World War. After fighting our invisible viral enemy, perhaps we are better equipped to align resources and build resilience against the next threat. Buildings renovation should be a right for those who need it, and a responsibility for those who can afford it.

With interest rates at historic lows, and with unprecedented support from the European Central Bank, money has never been so cheap or abundant. It now needs to be organised into a specialised pan-European renovation fund, managed by the European Investment Bank, with its national banks, partners and local governments supporting retail distribution and citizen engagement.

Secondly, and simply, every European building owner needs a renovation plan to ensure their building is fit for purpose, and for a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. These plans need to be the blueprints for investments from a mix of private and public resources (based upon a societal needs test and renovation ambition assessment).

Teams of accredited experts can help homeowners produce renovation plans, access the blended funds and link up with accredited builders. The trick is to make the renovation process as smooth and hassle-free as possible, while at the same time making it clear that maintaining a stranded asset (an unrenovated building) will become more and more expensive. Meanwhile, poor and vulnerable communities should expect to be insulated from cost increases and supported in their renovation plans through the kind of public grants that ensure a just transition for all Europeans.

EU building 'renovation wave' set for launch in September

The European Commission’s energy chief, Kadri Simson, has flagged the upcoming building renovation wave, rooftop solar, and offshore wind as key priorities for the energy sector in the recovery phase from the coronavirus crisis.

Finally, this will only happen affordably and competitively if European buildings become active players in the digital revolution.

All information on the physical, financial and energy performance and operational attributes of our buildings needs to be digitalised, accessible and transparent to owners and, if authorised, to their appointed operators. Europe’s largest industrial employer – the construction sector that provides 9% of GDP – must urgently go digital.

Europe’s recovery from the COVID-provoked recession will succeed or fail depending on how much money can be channeled into future-proof, beneficial-for-all investments. The roadmap of the European Green Deal and the new funds which are becoming available can be combined in a recovery package which provides a just renovation for all Europeans.

This may not be a new concept, but it’s never been our top priority. Buildings renovation should be a recovery funded plan-of-work that binds member states together, and blends financial resources, to deliver fit and healthy green buildings for all.

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.

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