To get rid of Russian fossil fuels, the EU needs to put energy savings first

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

Upgrading technical building systems and increasing automation, adding insulation in attics and roofs, installing smart LED lighting, high-performance windows and heat pumps are only a few examples of technological solutions that could be implemented in a short period of time and deliver long term benefits, write Monicas Frassoni and Harry Verhaar.

The biggest potential for massive energy savings lies in the decarbonisation of the EU building stock. But to be effective, measures must be accompanied by a strong EU policy and regulatory framework, write Monica Frassoni and Harry Verhaar.

Monica Frassoni is President of the European Alliance to Save Energy (EU-ASE). Harry Verhaar is Head of Global Public & Government Affairs of Signify and EU-ASE Chairperson.

The aggression against Ukraine by Putin is not only a tragic reminder that peace is never an evidence but also another powerful reminder of the urgency of getting rid of our dependence on fossil fuels and accelerating the full implementation of an ambitious Green Deal. Over the past decades, the EU hesitated to address its reliance on fossil fuels import, a well-known threat to the block’s energy security.

In 2021 the EU imported more than 40% of its fossil gas consumption from Russia, about 155 billion cubic meters. A considerable amount of this gas is needed to heat Europe’s old and inefficient buildings. Fossil gas accounts for more than 32% of the EU’s final energy consumption in households. If we also consider the indirect use of gas for electricity production, we have the extent of Europe’s gas reliance problem and the risks of its dependency on energy imports.

We welcomed the immediate reaction of the Commission in March with the REPowerEU communication, despite its excessive focus on diversification of gas supply. We are confident that the action plan published on 18 May will be much more coherent with the need to reduce our dependency on Russian gas and fossil fuels altogether through an acceleration of energy efficiency measures and renewables deployment.

The REPowerEU plan must come with credible, actionable measures that governments, citizens and industry can implement by following the Green Deal agenda and notably energy savings measures.  To support this, the EU can count on clean, made-in-Europe technologies that are at the heart of the energy transition. A broad range of short and mid-term measures to address the energy and climate crisis is available. We believe that by deploying energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry, transport and the water sector, Europe can deliver massive energy savings and substantially reduce Europe’s fossil fuel imports.

The biggest potential lies in the decarbonisation of the EU building stock. Upgrading technical building systems and increasing automation, adding insulation in attics and roofs, installing smart LED lighting, high-performance windows and heat pumps are only a few examples of technological solutions that could be implemented in a short period and deliver long term benefits. For instance, the large-scale deployment of building automation and control systems in non-residential buildings could save 450 TWh of annual final energy consumption and 64 Mt of CO2 emissions while saving €36 billion on the energy bill. This is equivalent to about 30% of EU imports from Russia in 2021.

Reducing energy demand and optimising energy consumption goes hand in hand with lowering energy bills over time, thus tackling energy poverty. In addition to the benefits to households of lower energy bills, a more energy-efficient building is also a healthier and more comfortable place to live and a sound investment for building owners.

These measures must be accompanied by a strong EU policy and regulatory framework to be effective. This is essential to give the necessary signals to private actors, starting with companies and investors, and to foster positive behavioural change among citizens.

In this light, the Fit for 55 package negotiations should be fast-tracked to phase out fossil fuels. In particular, both revisions of the Energy Efficiency and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directives are vital drivers to significantly reduce energy consumption and emissions by 2030 and in view of climate neutrality by 2050.

The European Commission is considering the option of raising the 2030 targets for renewables and energy efficiency. This would be the proper signal to show to the co-legislators that more ambition is needed at this crucial moment.

Europe can break away from its energy dependency on Russia, but today’s solutions could be tomorrow’s problems if fossil fuel supplies are prioritised over energy efficiency and renewables.

As we all know, the greenest and cheapest energy is the one we do not need to import and use. We have the capacity to address the energy and climate crisis simultaneously. To do so, Europe must invest in the full application of the Energy Efficiency First principle and climate-friendly technologies available today.

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