How much should we reduce emissions from our buildings?

Heating and cooling systems, hot water, lights, and appliances contribute to making buildings intense energy users—and the largest emitters of carbon. In Europe alone, buildings represent 40% of the final energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions. Contrary to other CO2 sources, buildings have actually contributed to an increase in CO2 emissions during COVID.

This level of inefficiency is unsurprising given that European residential buildings are mostly over 50 years old and display an energy performance lower than A. Moreover, according to the Jacques Delors Institute, the fact that our houses are inefficient compounds the problem that thirty million Europeans struggle every year to adequately heat their homes. This problem is even worse in Southern Europe, where lack of insulation causes family houses to be freezing in the Winter and unbearably warm in the Summer. The latter is a concern as the likelihood and intensity of heat waves is increasing due to Climate Change.

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The road to zero carbon: what European projects are telling us

According to the IPCC Special Report, at current emissions (around 42 Gigatons of CO2 per year), the available carbon budget for reaching 1.5 °C will expire between 2030 and 2040, and for 2.0°C will expire anywhere between 2040 and 2050. This is the reason we need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and why we are fighting against time to cut the 20+ Gigatons of CO2 until 2030 (see chart).


So, we have to ask ourselves how can we undertake such drastic changes without risking at the same time the liveability, food security or quality of life of billions of people?

It is not going to be easy. But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, a clear long-term common vision of a green future is a good start. In the Paris agreement, 196 nations pledged to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible (not so clear indeed). The EU itself has set the ambition to becoming climate neutral by 2050 and prevent the worst effects of temperature increase. This 2050 climate-neutrality target has been since enshrined into law (European Climate Law).

The next step is building the road to get there – the “right” one or of least resistance. In technical terms we call this a “transition pathway”. Transition pathways consist of a coherent selection of policies, strategies and technologies that lead to low carbon innovations in one or more sectors (Lieu et al, 2020). They also equate, inevitably, an indication of the (often hard) decisions we need to take in order to move in the right direction. For example, shortening the distance food travels from the farm to our plates.

The 2018 EU strategy “Clean Planet for All” – a European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy provides an indicative pathway, composed of “a number of solutions that could be pursued for the transition to a net-zero GHG emissions economy by mid-century”. Electrification of the energy supply, electric vehicles, reducing energy consumption, promoting a circular bioeconomy, and carbon capture and storage are some of the options chosen in the strategy (see image below).

Figure. EU 2018 transition pathway.

As the 2030 and the 2050 climate target ambition have been increased, a new pathway strategy is expected in the Summer of 2021.

At the same time, to support European, national or regional policymaking, a wide number of research and policy-oriented organisations across Europe have been making their own contributions on the best options to deliver the 2050 target with the least amount of disruption. Providing decision-makers trustworthy estimates of what the different paths entail, in terms of benefits or costs, can take us a long way to actually achieving our goals.

In this article, I explore a select number of research projects with the objective of revealing what they have been saying about optimal transition pathways. What I have found out is that they certainly don’t provide answers, but they do provide valuable tools to help us reach those answers.

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An update on COVID-19 impact on Greenhouse Gases emissions

Some positive, albeit fleeting, news coming from the Global Carbon Project[1]. Global fossil CO2 emissions have decreased by around 2.6 Gigatons (Gt) of Carbon Dioxide in 2020 to 34 GtCO2 (7% compared to 2019). According to the same source, this level of reduction of 2.6Gt has never been observed before. Yet, this is almost the level of annual cuts that we need throughout the next decade to comply with the climate ambition of the Paris Agreement (2°C).

Unfortunately, the drop was a result of the measures implemented to slow down the COVID-19 pandemic and not of comprehensive and effective climate action policies. It is unlikely that the need to bring the economy to a stand-still to stop COVID transmission produces any durable changes, as they had little impact on the fossil fuel-based infrastructure that moves our world. In other words, these will not last.

Before COVID, climate policies were estimated to reduce GHG emissions 5% by 2030 compared to business-as-usual. This was equated to an excess of 21.1 Gt of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2030 – almost 10 times the COVID-19 effect!  Predictably, most countries were deemed not on track to meet their commitments made in the Paris Agreement back in 2015.

Pre-COVID strategies were clearly not working. At the end of the day, our carbon-emitting activities must reach a plateau right now and start decreasing to zero in the coming decades. This emissions pause can be used to inform a reorientation of our economic activities. Some of the measures that came out of the need to isolate communities, particularly affecting transportation, received a positive feedback. As the World Bank tells us:

    • The experience of social distancing has highlighted the values people cherish (…) beyond work: the diversity of amenities and restaurants, social networks, sports and culture.
    • (…) redesigning cities to increase green spaces and promote walking and biking, will generate savings, create jobs and yield climate benefits long after the pandemic fades.
    • Remote work, piloted on a massive scale during lockdowns, could create more opportunities for skilled service workers (…).

I would also add other measures such as remote communications for business meetings (even though not so popular right now) and local tourism. They all have had a considerable impact on fossil-fuel usage.

The recovery and resilience plans being drafted at this moment throughout Europe must be used to prevent going back to modest measures and favour investment and reforms towards the green infrastructure we need for a more sustainable development.

[1] A project of Future Earth, a global network of scientists, researchers, and innovators collaborating for a more sustainable planet.

European Post-COVID Recovery Plans

Yesterday, the Interreg’s Policy Learning Platform team organised an interesting webinar dedicated to the European Recovery and Resilience Facility (ERRF). The Commission’s representative had the keynote and she took the opportunity to exemplify some of the projects and reforms the European Commission (EC) envisions to be financed under the ERRF financial umbrella. As the ERRF’s timeline is rapidly unravelling, this is a great opportunity to delve a bit into what this package is all about and what kind of outcomes it will likely generate until its scheduled conclusion in 2026.

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