There are fears that the revised directive on energy efficiency of the European Commission will not do justice to the task.
The revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) expected by the European Commission today as part of the Fit for 55 package is a legislative milestone that must not be scrutinized.
The building sector plays a systemic role in the bloc’s efforts to achieve climate neutrality and to fulfill its international climate commitments. The EPBD is the main policy instrument for regulating buildings across the European Union.
Since its first adoption in 2002, the legislation has been vital to improving the energy efficiency of the European building stock by promoting energy efficiency and aiming for long-term decarbonisation. However, given the need to take decisive action to address the climate emergency this decade, the time has come for a major overhaul to fill the gaps and raise ambitions.
In order to decarbonise buildings, profound changes are urgently needed to ensure the sector contributes to efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 Â° C. In fact, the homes and offices that surround us today are among the main culprits of the climate crisis, which accounts for around 40 percent of all energy consumption and 36 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in the EU.
More than seven in ten buildings are still extremely wasteful – mainly due to poor thermal insulation and inefficient fossil fuel-based heating systems – and were built before most energy efficiency regulations were introduced in the 1990s. It is estimated that by 2050, if the EU wants to be climate neutral, up to 90 percent of the building stock will still be used.
The fact that the enormous energy-saving potential of this sector is not being exhausted is mainly due to the lack of measures that would trigger retrofitting at the required speed and depth. Energy savings in buildings are maximized through a major renovation that improves thermal integrity, reducing energy consumption and the size of the heating equipment required. Most of the renovations in the EU do not lead to energy savings at all, while only around 0.2 percent lead to a significant reduction in the final energy requirement.
It’s not much better for new builds, however. Current building codes are far from perfect as they are based on inadequate levels of performance and allow the continued installation of fossil fuel heating systems. In addition, the legal framework lacks requirements to promote sustainable materials, resource efficiency and a more circular approach to decarbonise buildings over their entire life cycle.
Accelerating the renovation of EU buildings is not only an environmental urgency, it would also bring significant social benefits. Inefficient and polluting homes are a major cause of energy poverty, a social emergency that threatens over 96 million people in the EU.
In view of inadequate housing conditions combined with 100,000 premature deaths per year and an economic burden of over 194 billion euros in public health costs per year, ensuring better and healthier living conditions for all households must be high on the political agenda. In this moment of rising energy prices in the EU, a comprehensive building renovation in connection with completely renewable heating is also the safest strategy to limit the price volatility of households and counteract future peaks.
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Since construction and renovation are very labor intensive, it could create tons of new jobs, stimulate recovery and facilitate the transition to green, sustainable employment. Investing in energy efficiency could create an additional 160,000 jobs across the EU by 2030. Depending on the level of investment, increased building renovation could create up to 1,480,000 jobs.
No time to waste
Therefore, no time must be lost in developing a building guideline that corresponds to the necessary climate ambitions, in particular through measures that are to increase the renovation rate to at least 3 percent per year by 2030.
As a first step, this requires the elaboration of a common legal definition of major renovation, which is missing in the EU framework. According to a current expert analysis, an ambitious definition should aim to minimize the energy demand of buildings – with an energy saving of at least 75 percent – and at the same time ensure that the remaining low-energy demand is completely covered by renewable energies at the end of the process.
Following the example of an increasing number of member states, binding minimum energy efficiency standards (MEPS) for all existing buildings – with a timeline of milestones for the energy efficiency levels to be achieved by the entire existing building – would trigger the necessary wave of building renovation. The aim should be to achieve a highly energy efficient, sustainable and fully renewable building sector in order to contribute to climate neutrality in line with the Paris Agreement.
Linking MEPS to a major renovation would allow renovations to be prioritized in one phase, reducing the barriers to occupants and the overall end cost. By improving the underperforming buildings, the first MEPS would help lift households out of energy poverty, along with a supportive framework that provides adequate funding and support to all those in need to obtain affordable housing.
These policies would need to be underpinned by up-to-date, reliable and complete data on the performance of the EU building stock. A major challenge in this context is the low prevalence of energy performance certificates (EPCs) in the Member States.
EPCs are one of the most outstanding tools introduced by the current EPBD and provide information on the overall energy performance of a building and recommendations on how to improve it. However, these certificates are only issued when a building is being built or offered for sale or rent and in many countries less than 10 percent of the stock is covered. EPCs for all buildings would provide an accurate picture of the status of the entire EU building sector.
Future-proof building is just as important. The buildings built today will last for many decades, which is why it is imperative that they are built in the interests of a climate-neutral future. This means buildings that are very energy efficient and are supplied exclusively with renewable energies. A wide range of renewable energy sources are already available and should be incorporated into all designs – including renewable electricity that drives electrical heat pumps, ambient and geothermal, as well as solar thermal and renewable district heating systems.
At the same time, the overall environmental impact should be minimized through the sustainable use of materials and construction methods in order to reduce âphysicalâ emissions. The extraction of low-carbon, nature-based or secondary raw materials should be the rule, not the exception.
The EPBD revision is an opportunity to put all of these nice words into practice. The solutions are there and the goal is clear – clean, sustainable and healthy buildings for everyone.
Political will is required to set the transformation of the construction sector in motion. It must not be found defective.