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.

Renovating existing building stock alone can contribute to lowering CO2 emissions by about 5%, while generating new jobs, mostly in local SMEs and providing a welcome boost to the ailing construction sector. However, today, only 11% of the EU existing building stock undergoes some sort of renovation work each year – mostly on aesthetic grounds. Renovations that significantly address the energy performance of the building are residual (0,2%).

Given its weight, the building sector is at the centre of the European Commission’s commitment to cut 55% greenhouse gases emissions by 2030. Achieving a decarbonised building sector represents both a challenge of minimising energy demand for heating, cooling, lighting and other energy needs as well as of maximising renewable energy supply sources. The EU plans include reducing buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions by 60%, their final energy consumption by 14% and energy consumption for heating and cooling by 18%.

The twin challenge of energy efficiency and affordability is explicit in the EU Green Deal. The European Commission proposed a “Renovation Wave” where the annual energy renovation rate of residential and non-residential buildings doubles, impacting over 35 million building units until 2030. Besides reducing carbon in the atmosphere and tackling energy poverty, renovating our houses provides an immediate economic stimulus to the construction industry and SMEs in particular, which is welcome at a time we need to kick-start the European recovery.

Both the temporary Recovery and Resilience Fund (RFF) and the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will make available sizeable resources [1]Although clearly insufficient in the face of the COVID induced economic disaster. More information on the RRF here. in the coming years that can also be used for the required massive renovation effort. Member States have the opportunity to finance investments in deep energy renovations in public and residential buildings, as well as enact reforms to remove barriers to renovation, implement mandatory renovations of worst performing buildings or create of one-stop-shops for energy efficiency buildings. Horizon Europe will support research and innovation that contributes to speeding the energy transition, reduce associated costs or maximising benefits, improve sustainable resource management (including the circular economy and biodiversity), and reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, these opportunities are not being taken up enough by Member States. According to an analysis of the currently available EU Member States’ long-term renovation strategies (LTRS), their declared plans fall short of the Commission’s ambition, which means that the EU 2050 Climate Objectives for the building sector are unlikely to be achieved. The BPIE has also drafted some possible additional measures that could achieve the desired impact on building emissions:

      • The rate of renovation should at least be tripled, not doubled, so as to ensure complete decarbonisation by mid-century.
      • Scale-up and industrialise renovation.
      • Focus on deep renovations that reduce energy needs and install renewable-based heating systems.
      • All new buildings should be Net-Zero Energy (NZEB).
      • Discourage fossil fuel-based heating systems in new construction or renovations.
      • Tailor mandatory minimum energy performance requirements to specific segments of the building stock.

These added measures should ensure our buildings contribute the least possible for climate change. Of course, decarbonisation policies must ensure that no dwelling is left behind and is able to reap the rewards of the renovation wave. That means vulnerable groups or regions with insufficient access to clean energy should be supported.




1 Although clearly insufficient in the face of the COVID induced economic disaster. More information on the RRF here.

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