Is the EU paving the way towards zero-emission buildings?

Decarbonising Europe’s building stock is essential to achieve EU environmental and climate targets, but EU plans to improve buildings’ energy performance risk falling short, writes Roberta Arbinolo.

A whole-life carbon approach, energy efficiency and circular economy can work together in a coordinated strategy to slash emissions from buildings across the EU: it is the outcome of a fruitful discussion among researchers, NGOs, industry representatives and policy makers, who came together to talk EU building policies at an event organised by the EEB, BPIE and ECOS earlier this month. Yet a draft version of the revised EU law to improve buildings’ energy performance fails bringing together these cornerstones of buildings decarbonisation.

The draft of the revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), leaked to the press last week, does not include any reference to circularity and sufficiency, and addresses emissions from the operational phase of buildings only – i.e. once the buildings are in use – instead of considering a whole life carbon approach. But what are these approaches about, and why are they important?

Building up emissions

Our built environment has a significant impact on our emissions and energy use, and a huge potential to contribute to a climate neutral EU: in Europe, the use of buildings accounts for around 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions. And this is just the operational impact of buildings: globally, 11% of emissions come from embodied carbon – the emissions originated from the construction, demolition and wider supply chain of a building.
Today, the EU and its member states face an unprecedented opportunity to cap such emissions: the European Green Deal, the Renovation Wave and the Recovery plan for Europe set the context to refocus EU policy efforts towards the effective decarbonisation of our building stock, and the revision of two key laws regulating respectively the energy performance of buildings (EPBD) and construction products (CPR) is just about to start.
At the event, green NGOs called on policymakers and the construction value chain to break down silos and work together to remove existing barriers and take the necessary measures to achieve this objective.

Built-in emissions

The event shed a light on the need to tackle embodied emissions of buildings, a challenge which has been largely overlooked by policy makers.
The embodied impacts of building materials and construction products include the carbon emissions, resource-use and pollution that are built-in during the construction process. Embodied carbon is estimated to account for up to 10-20% of EU buildings’ CO2 footprint, depending on factors such as building type, construction technique and materials, and grid intensity. In EU countries that rely the most on low carbon energy sources, the embodied share can already reach 50%.

Yet, embodied emissions are not targeted by any of the 20 EU policy instruments related to buildings. This means policy makers have a significant opportunity to leverage decarbonisation and climate action in the building sector, by addressing both operational and embodied carbon in an integrated manner from the design stage – following what is called a Whole Life Carbon approach.

Zsolt Toth, Senior Project Manager at BPIE, told META:

“Considering whole life impacts prompts us to look beyond our silos: both within the construction industry and the policy bubble. It enables aligning ambitions and optimising policy interventions across the entire building lifecycle to reflect our remaining carbon budget and capability of industry. It requires us to collectively recognise and minimise the overall environmental impacts of our actions by explaining the relationship between design, construction decision making, use and operation of buildings in order to ensure the right allocation of environmental and financial resources.”

Building on circularity and sufficiency

Sufficiency and circularity policies have a huge potential to help reduce embodied emissions and ultimately decarbonise our building stock.

The sufficiency approach is about reducing the demand for energy, materials, land, water, and other natural resources over the lifecycle of buildings, while maximising wellbeing within the remaining carbon budget.

Circularity is about reducing the extraction and use of virgin construction materials by reusing, repurposing, and recycling the ones that are already in the system, and extending the life time of buildings.
Integrating these approaches in the EU building policy framework is key, yet sufficiency and circularity have been overlooked in the Fit For 55 package to decarbonise Europe, as well as in the draft EPBD.

Gonzalo Sanchez, the EEB’s Policy Officer for Circular economy and Carbon neutrality in the Building sector, told META:

“We need to untap the emissions reduction potential of sufficiency and circularity, and we need to do it now. The decarbonisation of our built environment will be driven by the renovation of residential buildings, which happens on average once every 25 years. If we miss this opportunity, the decarbonisation of the EU building stock by 2050 will be out of reach.”

Building policies to order

The European Commission’s proposal for a revised EPBD, expected to be release in December, is an key opportunity to put EU buildings on track towards climate neutrality, as highlighted by green NGOs in an open letter to Commissioners Timmermans and Simson earlier this week.

Member of the European Parliament Ciarán Cuffe, who participated in the NGO event, told META:

“The EPBD will be the primary legislative tool for the decarbonisation of buildings, which are responsible for 40% of our energy consumption and 36% of greenhouse gas emission. Buildings can be transformed into sources of energy, notably by producing renewable energy on rooftops, storing heat in insulated homes, and using efficient and renewable heat pump technologies for residual demand. We need to have high ambition levels for renovation, Minimum Energy Performance Standards, and energy rates that will drive us  towards the 2030 and 2050 objectives.”

“We need to have extensive building data in the EPBD so that we can have a clear roadmap and proper assessment of the timeline for building decarbonisation so that we can match our ambitions with a clear timeline for decarbonisation”, said Cuffe.

The EPBD is not the only file to be closely followed: the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) and the Energy Efficiency Directive are also under revision, and can be leveraged to help achieve buildings decarbonisation.