Revamping buildings improves the climate, public health and social equality

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

Building renovations can help keep temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius. [Shutterstock]

Sobering warnings from the UN about the impact of climate change on our planet and human health has one obvious solution: increase the rate of building renovation, in order to massively cut energy use, writes Vijoleta Gordeljevic.

Vijoleta Gordeljevic is health and climate change coordinator at the Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL).

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) launched a landmark report on how the world can limit global warming to 1.5°C, protecting the planet and the health of all its inhabitants.

It clearly states that there is no way around a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of certain sectors such as the buildings sector.

This comes as the European Commission is in the process of providing clear guidance to member states on the national implementation of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD).

The seemingly obvious solution: increasing the rate of buildings renovations. This will drastically decrease building’s energy use and CO2 impact, helping us limit warming to 1.5C and improve health in the process.

Here is the caveat. It is true, renovations can indeed greatly improve health. But in order for that to happen, national building codes must reflect the latest health evidence with regards to indoor air quality, chemicals used in building products or efficient provision of heating to just name a few.

Including the health perspective is needed to avoid energy efficient buildings be so insulated and sealed up that they unintentionally harm occupants’ health through stagnant air or under-ventilated indoor environments.

Health impacts from sealed buildings include increased risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases.

But look at it the other way – we have an almost golden opportunity – climate action through increased energy efficiency and public health action through building renovations that actually improve our health.

And it gets better! Because renovating buildings holds the power to address social inequalities, too.

Studies have shown that building renovations do indeed improve health: renovation of i.e. low-income housing using “green” and healthy principles results in significant improvements in overall health, asthma, and non-asthma respiratory problems in adults and children.

That means governments should prioritise renovating buildings used by vulnerable populations such as low- income families but especially children, elderly, or people living in energy poverty, a situation in which residents cannot afford to sufficiently heat or cool their homes due to high energy bills and energy inefficient buildings.

Here is where the greatest overall potential for better health lies.

Achieving a win-win for health and social equality in buildings renovation requires:

  • closer cooperation with between national and local authorities to identify low-income, sub-standard residential buildings first as a way to ensure greater social and health equities;
  • cities to set i.e. city focused and health- based buildings policies by knowing the respective city’s building priorities including areas of greatest concern, where high energy inefficiency numbers meet bad health and inequalities, while giving consideration to the threats associated with gentrification, which in itself can worsen physical and mental health;
  • active monitoring on the impacts that national renovation strategies have on the society’s most vulnerable, to reveal whether progress is being achieved in each Member State.

Health benefits from such a renovation focus would of course be reflected in national health care costs: the total cost to the British National Health Service attributable to the health outcomes from unhealthy housing alone (residential buildings) is estimated to be approx. €717 million per year.

The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety conducted a scoping study of the socio-economic cost of indoor air pollution and estimates the cost to be €19 billion per year from premature deaths, healthcare costs and production losses.

But the bottom-line is that if we combine the current quest for energy efficient buildings with an equal quest for better health and more equal societies, we have the chance to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

That also means alleviating poverty, improving energy security and creating not only greener but healthier, more equal and enjoyable cities with fewer respiratory and heart diseases, better mental health and happier citizens.

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