EU climate targets risk hitting construction regulations brick walls 

Just as we do not rely on tobacco manufacturers to set public health standards, we should not leave the pen to the industry to write construction products sustainability standards. With amendments tabling this December, the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) is wrapping itself into an early Christmas gift to the construction industry, with consumers and climate paying the price.

Laetitia Aumont and Bich Dao report.

The current energy crisis has deepened the impact of climate change and social vulnerabilities, exacerbating the need for an EU-wide Renovation Wave. At a time when 75% of housing is energy inefficient, this solution is urgently needed. However, while the renovation solution will undeniably require construction products, their energy-intensive and emission-heavy manufacturing is likely to worsen the very problems they are trying to solve.  

Towering climate impacts 

While the public climate radar is fixated on celebrities on private jets, construction products and buildings have skirted public scrutiny when it comes to their environmental footprints. Considering their overwhelming impacts, from manufacturing to demolition, this is quite a feat.  

Within the EU, the built environment accounts for 36% of total carbon emissions, 33% of water consumption, 35% of EU waste and a whopping 50% of all used materials. 

Foolish faith in standards 

What is more concerning than these figures is the blind faith that EU regulations have left in the construction industry’s hands to cut down on these sky-high figures.  

The current revision of the CPR leaves sustainability performances at the whim of the industry-dominated process of harmonised standardisation. Not only are standards heavily dictated by industry, but the process is devoid of both transparency and parliamentary scrutiny – both at EU and member state level. 

In short, the public has little to no control over the performance of 50% of EU materials, with no guaranteed representation of public and planet interests. Ironically, even though the ball rests in the construction industry’s court, the industry itself risks closing its doors on future-proof innovations to uphold the status quo and short-term profits. 

Industry first 

While disappointing, the prioritisation of industry’s interests came as no surprise. Despite the file sitting at the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO), the rapporteur Christian Doleschal was a lawyer for one of the most powerful medium-sized companies in the German construction industry.  

On the reported list of meetings on his own European Parliament site, all CPR meetings in the last three years were with industry and trade association representatives save for one lone appointment. Mr. Doleschal has made no attempt to hide how little he cares about consumer protection and environmental interests.  

Ecodesign inspirations 

The reliance on industry standards is suspiciously lax, as European policies are no strangers to regulation on product sustainability. The Ecodesign and Energy Labelling policy is a success story that has delivered tremendously on reducing climate impacts and energy use, all the while creating business opportunities, jobs and savings for consumers. 

The policy duo combines primary legal acts to set the minimum environmental requirements and supporting standards to measure, declare and verify performances and compliance. A unified and codified target has also allowed for more coordination and knowledge flow across member states. Lastly, it allows for complete consumer transparency, with clear energy labelling schemes for fair comparability, protection from greenwashing, and in the future, digital product passports that clearly convey their added environmental benefit.  

Other environmental standards are following suit. The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive is moving on from the historically unsuccessful reliance on industry’s standard towards proposals of mandatory recycled contents, waste prevention targets, and requirements for reusability and recyclability.  

So, what is stopping construction products from joining the party? Why is the sector purposefully chaining itself to the Dark Age of technical confidentiality? 

No longer a ‘nice-to-have’ 

Amidst the peak of renovations and in the time of decarbonisation, the CPR stands as the linchpin transformer for the energy-intensive industries and the built environment, two of the largest contributors to EU emissions. Half of the EU’s materials and a third of its carbon emissions should not be left to the goodwill of a handful of CEOs. Sustainable and reduced use of resources is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’. For its intensive use of finite resources and energy, sustainable and regulated construction products should have no choice but to become the status quo.  

Unfortunately, it seems the way the CPR is handled so far, EU climate goals are not being remotely considered. 

This is an urgent wake-up call for the CPR. Take it out of the standardisation cavern where industry cooks its own recipes. Put it under the spotlight it deserves through real policy discussions on the future performances of construction products, transparent and comparable information for end-users and all value chain actors. Let’s unleash the competition and innovation potentials for the future of an industry that accounts for 50% of all materials used in the EU.