Green homes: Resource sufficiency is key to achieving climate neutrality

Europe must go beyond energy efficiency and recognise the need for resource sufficiency in the real estate and housing sectors. The time is ripe for a holistic policy framework that serves people and the planet, writes Gonzalo Sanchez.

This opinion piece was originally published in Euractiv.

Greening our homes, buildings and public spaces is a crucial element of the EU’s strategy towards climate neutrality. Given its potential in terms of job creation and climate action, our so-called built environment has become one of the pillars of the European Green Deal. But for the sector to contribute to our climate and social goals meaningfully, our policymakers will have to think outside the box and take a step further.

Simply put, renovating the EU’s ageing building stock and improving their energy efficiency will not be enough. To achieve climate neutrality and reduce living costs, we need a more comprehensive and holistic approach based also on resource sufficiency.

More with less

Despite progress in reducing energy demand in European buildings, overall CO2 emissions per capita have continued to increase in recent years driven mostly by two trends: growing consumption patterns and expanding average floor area per capita in certain areas.

These trends highlight the need for more inclusive policies which take into account material sufficiency alongside efforts to boost energy efficiency and renewables. All in all, such measures would help EU countries reduce the need for carbon-intensive construction materials, notably cement and steel, and the amount of energy needed to heat a building.

This is nothing new. For decades, environmentalists have been promoting the concept of ‘eco-sufficiency’, or simply ‘sufficiency’, alongside efficiency and renewable energy – the so-called SER framework. However, this concept is resurfacing now as it becomes particularly relevant to the decarbonisation of the EU’s building sector and to the need to provide sustainable housing for our growing population.

Broadly speaking, sufficiency is defined as the measures aiming at reducing the demand for materials and energy while delivering a decent living standard for all.

When it comes to housing, this concept often entails rethinking the design and use we make of our buildings, reducing the average square meters per inhabitant while ensuring comfortable living standards for all. According to this view, the size of a home should then be proportional to the size of the household that’s going to live in it.

Below are some of the relevant measures that have been suggested in recent years to achieve this goal:

  • Empty and rundown buildings. Empty buildings and houses across Europe should be repurposed or renovated as housing and/or reallocated to people in need of housing so as to avoid building new ones.
  • Promoting shared spaces and services. Shared spaces, products and services such as laundry rooms and garages could reduce resource use and CO2 emissions, while also benefiting more people living in the same area. Designing multipurpose rooms is also an effective way of saving space and resources.
  • Adaptability and flexibility of buildings. Buildings should be designed in a functional and flexible way so that they can be adapted to the evolving needs of people. For example, when family members move out, a small renovation could create direct, external access to their bedrooms so that the space can be used by other tenants.
  • Adaptability of the real estate. The real estate sector should provide flexible options for housing depending on the size of the household which can vary over time. Larger households should have priority when it comes to allocating homes.
  • Flexible housing policy. When feasible and desirable, relevant policies should support a shift from home ownership to usership. This way, people would secure the right to live comfortably in a house that’s big enough for their needs, preventing the waste of energy and resources that may result from buying or building a bigger house.

Let people decide

Ultimately, in view of the environmental and social issues that Europe is facing today, the concept of sufficiency is about the fair redistribution and democratisation of space and resources across society. It is about people’s wellbeing and their right to live comfortable lives within planetary boundaries.

For this reason, if this approach is to be embraced by our society, policymakers need to ensure that all relevant decisions are taken as part of an inclusive process that takes into consideration the needs of all people.

This means fostering the development of deliberative processes such as national or local assemblies whereby citizens help shape the policies aimed at their personal and collective wellbeing.

It is necessary to make citizens a central part of decision making and respect their proposals, so that they can choose the kind of future they want for themselves and for their children. This is the only way to ensure the highest possible ambition in the development of any policy framework, while also keeping people’s interests at its heart.