On shaky ground: EU’s building energy law risks dilution and delays

The EU’s upcoming building energy law could drive Europe’s social, energy and environmental progress, but it is threatened by dilution and delays. At the eleventh hour of their mandates, EU policymakers must fight hurdles of national misinformation to keep the law ambitious and timely, writes Bich Dao.

Buildings: our shelter, our gathering, our work places, these structures surround us at nearly every day of our lives, and account for a large proportion of our energy and material consumption. It should then not come as a surprise that improving our built environment can set about massive social, energy and environmental transformations.

One key EU law, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), is aiming to contribute to all of these aspects through renovating Europe’s draftiest homes and phasing out expensive and polluting heating technologies.

Yet, amidst the hustle and bustle of elections in Europe, including EU’s own, the file has been heavily reduced by some factions as a ‘green agenda,’ thus risking to delay the resolution of one of Europe’s most pressing challenges: ensuring access to adequate housing and affordable energy for everyone.

Change starts at home

Currently, around 75% of European buildings are not energy efficient, which burdens hundreds of millions with paying for energy that simply leaks. Furthermore, fossil fuel remains the most common source of heating, with a new boiler still being installed every eight seconds. The consequences? Buildings account for 40% of Europe’s energy consumption, and the bloc remains highly vulnerable to yet another gas crisis.

Concrete benefits beyond a wall of misinformation

With an ambitious EPBD, Europe will be able to structurally improve the energy efficiency of buildings across the continent. However, the law now risks to be watered down by EU and national negotiators, as populist movements in Italy and Germany spread fear that it would burden citizens and encroach upon the autonomy of their homes.

These arguments are based on misconceptions and false calculations, and fail to reflect the cost of inaction. In 2022, the EU spent €646 billion to support high energy bills driven by gas pricing, and it will keep paying a high price if its aging building stock and ancient fossil fuel heating systems are not upgraded. On the contrary, investing in future-proofing homes means addressing energy poverty at its core, yielding benefits for families, governments, and the community at large through a reduced environmental footprint.

The EPBD is also a key opportunity to acknowledge the heavy environmental footprint of our buildings, looking beyond the energy consumed during their use phase, and starting to tackle their whole life-cycle emissions to achieve a climate-neutral building stock by 2050.

By addressing both operational and embodied emissions, building regulations can favour adaptive reuse and retrofit of buildings over new constructions, and cut the costs of new affordable housing, while also reducing household energy bills that are largely associated with disproportionate fossil fuel costs. This is not to mention the spillover benefits for the EU construction sector, and the fact that increased reliance on renewable energy will boost European production of renewables and heating technologies.

The make-or-break decade

Potentially even more concerning than the risk of dilution is the prospect of significant delays in approving the law. Originally intended to be finalised before summer 2023, the file is still under discussion dangerously close to the end of the Spanish Presidency of the EU, with no key decision made. If EU and Member States’ negotiators miss the chance to finalise it now, the file might slip through the crack as EU election campaigns kick off in 2024, leaving the law’s success in the hands of the newly elected European Parliament and Commission.

Delays in the EPBD are more than just bureaucratic hiccups: without improvements to the European aging building stock, it is simply impossible to achieve the EU’s ambitions for a fairer society, reduced carbon emissions, and energy independence.

Merely seven years away from the 2030 deadline to reduce the bloc’s emissions by 55%, the EU can no longer kick the can down the road by renovating buildings below energy standards using energy-intensive materials, and installing new gas heating systems which imply 20 more years of fossil fuel use.

Time for a Reno-lution

It is time to recognise that building laws are more than just climate laws: they are a crucial opportunity for progress for any policymaker invested in better housing for all. With the imminent risk of another gas crisis and climate stumbling blocks, EU and national policymakers must now unite to ensure an ambitious law that will protect both people and planet. This is a resounding call echoed by over 67 European social, health and environmental organisations, local authorities, trade unions and youth movements.

The foundations of a decarbonised and fairer tomorrow must be laid by the end of 2023, with the closure of the EPBD.