With the built environment accounting for a third of the EU’s carbon emissions, the bloc’s environmental targets hinge on stricter building regulations. The pressure is on the European Commission to deliver a revision of the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) by the end of this month that can meet the EU’s very own climate ambitions, writes Bich Dao.

The emitting elephant in the room

Decarbonising the construction sector is crucial in order to meet EU climate targets, yet the tackling of the environmental impacts of constructions remains the elephant in the room. 

Together with buildings, construction products – including energy-intensive intermediaries such as cement and steel, account for approximately 50% of all extracted materials, 33% of water consumption and 35% of EU waste. These translate to 36% of the EU’s carbon emissions.

Despite its large share in carbon emissions, construction products are overlooked as a source of emission from buildings due to the built-in impacts, embodied into the buildings’ environmental impacts away from its operational emissions. In fact, 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. 
Between new projects and the ‘Renovation Wave’ objectives calling for deep renovations of 36 million homes by 2030, the clock is ticking on setting a proper policy framework to minimise the impact of the products we use to build a greener Europe.

CPR to the rescue?

Amidst this mounting pressure comes the European Commission’s revision of the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) at the end of March 2022, carrying the burden to make large shifts in the construction sector in time. 

The CPR revision is set to simplify the placement rule for construction products on the European market, including integrating environmental concerns to align with the European Green Deal. By ensuring the supply of more sustainable construction products under the upcoming Renovation Wave, an effective CPR is a unique opportunity to effectively minimise the embodied impacts of building materials and construction products in new and to-be-renovated buildings within the EU. 

However, on the basis of the latest discussions with the European Commission, the CPR appears likely to fall short of its potential. 

Speaking to META, Federica Pozzi – Programme Manager at ECOS said:

“Construction products are responsible for half of the EU’s resource and water consumption. Maintaining the status quo on how the CPR deals with environmental parameters means not exploiting an opportunity to reduce the impacts of construction products. The EU must set requirements on environmental hotspots instead of outsourcing this responsibility to industry through standardisation. 2030 is closer than we think, and meeting our climate objectives is not a given.”

Hammering home the call for an ambitious CPR

In a joint letter with other NGOs, the EEB urgently called on the European Commission to consider aligning the CPR revision, set to be published in two weeks, with environmental agenda. The NGOs underlined that the current CPR is not fit to tackle the substantial environmental impacts from construction products, particularly against the decarbonization objectives set by the European Green Deal. 

Tightening the screws on Commission, NGOs reiterated the environmental demands that should be included in the new revision.  

First and foremost, there needs to be minimum environmental requirements inherent to products’ performance, effectively promoting the competitiveness of low-carbon, circular and non-toxic products in the market. The current legal condition outsources the standardisation system to be set by dominant industry manufacturers, who align on a minimum common denominator, stifling competition, SMEs market access, and innovation. 

Secondly, there needs to be more transparency in product information, supported by digitised tools (e.g. Digital Product Passports) to ensure  data is effectively communicated all along products’ value chain. 

Thirdly, there needs to be a proposal on removal of barriers to market access for used construction products, ensuring they can be competitive, and the decarbonisation and resource efficiency potential of those materials is fully exploited. 

Most importantly, these demands are underlined with urgency. Gonzalo Sanchez – Policy Officer for Circular Economy and Carbon Neutrality in the Building Sector at the EEB said:

“We have to be conscious that if the Commission’s proposal for the CPR does not prioritise promoting secondary materials and set minimum environmental requirements for construction materials, the CO2 embodied emissions from construction materials will not be reduced in the next 10 years. The Commission now has a historic opportunity to enable real and sustainable change in the building sector through the CPR.”

The CPR, along with the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and Energy Efficiency Directive (EED), hold the key to decarbonise the European building stock in time to reach EU’s climate objectives. In overlooking many environmental aspects in the CPR, the Commission is largely undermining its own climate ambitions. Climate neutrality by 2050 does not happen if policy-makers are not willing to walk the talk, and it starts with larger leaps rather than timid steps in the CPR.

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