EU Building policies need built-in climate ambitions

The Energy Performance in Building Directive (EPBD) holds the key to meeting climate goals set by ‘Fit for 55’ as well as energy independence goals set by ‘REPowerEU’. However, the current file needs beefing up to be ready for the challenge, write Bich Dao and Gonzalo Sánchez. 

Buildings, their GHG emissions, and energy use is a pressing matter transcending security, social, and climate dimensions. Our built environment has a significant impact on our CO2 emissions and energy use, and a huge potential to contribute to a climate neutral EU: in Europe, buildings account for around 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions.

The need to improve energy performance in buildings is increasingly urgent. With the announcement of REPowerEU, which calls for the end to dependence on Russian gas, the EU is under mounting pressure to ramp up its energy efficiency efforts, particularly in improving the current building stock – roughly 75% of which are energy inefficient. This follows a winter of sharp climb in energy prices, the volatility of which has put 1 in 4 European households at risk for energy poverty. On top of that, the latest editions of IPCC have sent out increasingly alarming climate calls for the building sector to meet net zero GHG emission by 2050 to stay under 1.5C.    

The EPBD is currently the only EU policy that could address the energy efficiency and GHG emissions at the building level. In a position paper published by the EEB, the NGO reinstates the need for an EPBD with built-in climate ambitions in order to rise to its challenges. The paper calls for the upcoming trilogue process to include, among other, an ambitious Whole Life Carbon (WLC) roadmap, a deadline for phasing out of fossil fuels in heating and cooling, and the promotion of circular and sufficiency measures.

Ambitious Whole Life Carbon roadmap

Entirely focused on the operational phase of buildings, the current version of the EPBD misses the opportunity to address the embodied carbon in an integrated manner from the design stage – following what is called a Whole Life Carbon approach.

As the only building file that could address the WLC approach, any delay to the inclusion of WLC delays climate actions in the building sector until the next revision in more than a decade time and missing the current Renovation Wave, an amount of time we no longer can afford.

An ambitious WLC roadmap must be established, including requirements for setting targets, benchmarks, and limits to reduce embodied and operational emissions by 2030. Strict timelines must be in place. Reporting on WLC should be mandatory for all new public and large non-residential buildings and major renovations by 2024 and for all buildings by 2027. Setting benchmarks and limits on WLC should be established by 2026, ensuring its implementation by 2028. 

Fossil-free heating and cooling

While the EPBD currently only focuses on the operational phase, it does not properly commit to the phase-out of heating and cooling. 

In a joint manifesto with 6 other civil society organisations, the EEB has called for a drastic overhaul of the heating and cooling system in Europe to shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable (e.g. heat pump) to protect the environment, European security, and the 80 million Europeans who are choosing between heating or eating this winter alone.

Circularity and sufficiency

Sufficiency and circularity policies have a huge potential to help reduce embodied emissions and ultimately decarbonise our building stock, as well as reduce the sector’s material footprints.

Heavily referenced under the latest IPCC report, the sufficiency approach underlines the importance of reducing our demands for natural resources (e.g. energy, land, materials) in the life cycle of buildings, all the while maximising our wellbeing. Circularity, on the other hand, focuses on building with less virgin materials, instead switching towards reusing, repurposing, and recycling materials and current building stocks.

Coupled with work expected from the Construction Products Regulation, the EPBD should establish requirements for the Member States to set specific national targets for 2030 of at least 15% for the use of circular materials in buildings by 2025. The EU recommendation should be delivered by 2024 at the latest, and be founded upon commitments to double the circular material use rate by 2030 under the Circular Economy Action Plan.

Getting the house in order

Entering the trilogue process now, the EPBD stands to gain more power in tackling our climate challenges, all the while addressing interrelated social and security problems. With its ability to transform a heavy-emitting sector, the key to turn the tide now lies with EU Parliament, Council, and Commission to ensure that the EPBD leaves the trilogue process as a powerful tool against climate and social challenges, and through that show that the EU is fully committed to the ambitions of “Fit for 55” and “REPowerEU”.