Construction products law risks turning “carbon neutral EU” into a pipedream

Standing firmly between Europe and carbon neutral 2050 is the underregulated construction product market, one of Europe’s heaviest burdens to the environment. With the vote in EU Parliament on 12 July, decisionmakers must choose: will the EU seize the opportunity of becoming the global leader in green materials, or will business-as-usual cost us our climate goals?

Bich Dao reports.

Colossal amount of waste, heavy energy consumption, and material inefficiency, the environmental statistics on construction products paint a harsh reality of industries that carve away planetary resources, worsening our environmental crises and undermining our climate targets. In Europe, construction is responsible for 50% of all extracted materials, producing 35% of all waste in the EU. Simply concrete and steel alone make up more than 5% of the EU and UK’s total emissions.

Luckily, the EU now has the unique chance to turn things around by transforming the construction products market. The revised Construction Products Regulation (CPR), a file responsible for harmonising these product standards, are the best placed policies to set Europe about a new generation of construction products into more sustainable, energy-efficient, and environmentally friendly innovations.

But the journey is not an easy one.

Industry and conservative blockage

Despite the opportunity to clear many climate hurdles and become global leaders in the necessary market revolution, the IMCO Committee in EU Parliament has put forward a draft position of the CPR that will allow for business-as-usual, adding no environmental requirements on a mandatory basis.

Led by a pro-industry rapporteur, the current proposal makes a mockery out of the EU’s decarbonisation goals. After months of refusal to heed the concerns of the green, leftist and socialist representations in the committee, the text was adopted to the unanimous opposition and abstention of the three political groups.

If the current text passes, any proposed environmental standard will be left to fend for itself in an inefficient industry-biased standard-setting process. Unsurprisingly, this process – which is the status quo – has not delivered any environmental standard in the last decade. If the EU Parliament accepts the draft position, this revision would have missed the opportunity of raising the bar on environmental performance of products and encouraging more sustainable innovations.

Incompatible with green building law

The enormous environmental footprints of buildings and materials are no news Brussels lawmakers. A recent vote on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive has solidified the EU Parliament’s ambitions to cut buildings’ carbon emission across all phases, from daily energy use to better climate performance of each building block. However, achieving these targets would be mission impossible if the building blocks themselves are not pushed to change for the better.

By not taking bold steps to address this issue, the EU is not only undermining its new building law before it can come to force, but it also risks kissing its carbon neutral 2050 vision goodbye. If the CPR does not radically move away from business-as-usual, the construction sector will have exceeded its carbon budget for 1.5°C by 2026.

Beyond carbon neutrality, a lackluster CPR will leave the sector to be the EU’s ball and chain on the bloc’s journey to drastically reduce material use, waste, and energy consumption. Furthermore, we would also miss out on a tremendous opportunity to level the playing field for sustainable innovations and create jobs by opening a secondary material market.

A checklist for change

Green NGOs, architectural associations, and progressive industry players have joined forces to call for a better future construction industry. To achieve this, lawmakers must allow the CPR to fulfill its transformative potential by ensuring the adopted regulation will include:

  1. A functioning governance, where requirements are established through a transparent, democratic and participative process. This includes a strong oversight from the Commission, with EU-level requirements on key environmental indicators (i.e. recycled content and limits on embodied carbon) set in legislation and based on a scientific assessment.
  2. Robust information must be disclosed as a priority and on the basis of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). To secure effective decarbonisation, data must be disclosed all along products’ life cycle and be product specific, with information not only on CO2, but also covering circularity and toxicity. 
  3. Ecodesign requirements must be gradually developed, based on scientific evidence, tackling most polluting products first. 
    Ecodesign policies have a proven track record, with 150 Mt CO2 saved every year under the Ecodesign Directive. To ensure these benefits can be leveraged for construction products, the CPR must provide the right tools to ensure Ecodesign requirements are established through a structured, participative and evidence-based process.
  4. Mandatory EU-Green Public Procurement (GPP) criteria for construction products must be swiftly developed. 
    The public sector is in a key position to influence and support the decarbonization of the construction industry, accounting for 40-60% of purchase of some of the most energy intensive construction industries (i.e. concrete) Despite its importance, GPP remains largely fragmented within and across Member States, thus limiting its potential. Setting criteria through the CPR represents a key opportunity to ensure a large-scale demand for sustainable construction products driving the European construction market. 

All eyes are now on the members of the EU Parliament, who now hold Europe’s chance at a carbon neutral future in their hands. European lawmakers must show that they will no longer bow down to industry’s pressure, and will rise to the urgency of decarbonising climate-wrecking sectors.