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Unlocking Europe’s building revolution

By: Emilia Samuelsson

Buildings account for as much as 40 per cent of the EU’s overall energy consumption, with 75 per cent of these structures classified as inefficient.

Over the past few decades, there has been a lack of proactive and comprehensive building policies aimed at improving the energy efficiency of Europe’s buildings.

The Build Better Lives campaign unites more than 60 of Europe’s civil society, social, health and environmental NGOs, local authorities, trade unions and youth movements in a call for policy makers to ensure Europe’s buildings provide the foundation for an inclusive, fair and just energy transition.

Of the existing buildings in the EU, 85 to 95 per cent are expected to still be standing in 2050. Governments need to implement EU and national legislations around building renovation and heating decarbonisation in a manner that is inclusive and will deliver benefits for all. The revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is a crucial starting point that can steer EU member states towards developing more supportive frameworks for holistic building renovations that combine insulating our buildings and installing renewable heating solutions.

Currently, negotiations are underway between the EU Commission, EU Parliament and EU Council to determine the ambition level of the EPBD. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to push policy makers to support a strong legislative framework that prioritises improving the energy performance of the leakiest buildings as well as financial support, technical aid and strong social protection.

The EPBD was established in 2002 to set requirements for member states to improve the energy performance of buildings with the aim of reducing the EU’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

An ambitious EPBD could lift millions of homes out of energy poverty as well as addressing the climate crisis. In addition it could stop dangerous fossil-fuel-based installations being installed in homes and buildings. With the help of extensive renovation and installation of renewable energy and heating systems, Europe’s buildings can support an inclusive, fair and just energy transition.

Build Better Lives proposes the following:

Maximise the energy performance potential through a “Holistic Deep Renovation Wave” to address the current energy prices crisis:
To reduce demand for energy and end the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible, combining insulation works with the installation of renewable heating and cooling systems to deliver high energy savings and greater emission reductions, while integrating buildings into the energy system.

Implement a strong and clear regulatory framework with social safeguards:
Improving the energy performance of residential buildings is essential to deliver a just and inclusive transition. Social safeguards need to be designed at national and local levels to protect tenants and homeowners and secure housing accessibility to all residents.

Provide sufficient funding to vulnerable households to renovate the worst-performing homes:
Allocation of tailored accessible and affordable funding should take into account economic as well as racial, age and gender equality when designing financial schemes for renovations. The nature of building tenures should be taken into account, as well as different financial instruments and/or technical assistance measures.

Activate and support national and local actors through adequate EU policies to enable stakeholders to prepare for the challenges:
By providing a well-defined roadmap aligned with the Paris Agreement, along with necessary support and enforcement measures, governments, regional authorities and local bodies will have the means, and indeed the obligation, to develop essential energy infrastructure for conserving energy and harnessing local renewable heating resources. To achieve the goal of creating highly energy-efficient residences, phase out the use of fossil fuel-based heating systems and promote green employment opportunities it is essential to collaborate with a diverse range of stakeholders, including anti-poverty organisations (such as social service providers, NGOs and local healthcare practitioners), energy communities, trade unions, industrial sectors and financial institutions.

When it comes to renewable heating in particular there are important enablers but also barriers.
Daniel Sanz, Project Manager at ECODES, explains: “There are a plethora of reasons to embrace the transition to renewable heating, especially given the current international context. We have all heard by now how important it is to become energy independent, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. This transition will bring us closer to achieving our climate goals and will have direct consequences on European citizens, improving our health and comfort, business competitiveness, and saving money on our energy bills. Energy efficiency is key and many options are already available in the market to enable citizens to take advantage of it. In order to boost this transition, many barriers have been identified and action is needed from not only public administrations, but also citizens and industry.”

One key solution, district heating, is underutilised in Europe, with most district heating networks still reliant on fossil fuels due to the complexities of planning and infrastructure investment. The report calls for stronger commitments at the EU and member state levels to deploy integrated renewable heating and cooling systems, and realise energy savings and efficiency improvements. Another important development is the switch to heat pumps. Replacing 30 million oil and gas boilers with modern heat pumps by 2030 has the potential to yield a 36 per cent decrease in gas and oil consumption within these installations, accompanied by a 28 per cent reduction in their CO₂ emissions.

CAN Europe has published a report focusing on how to enable a renewable heating revolution in buildings which presents several additional solutions to barriers.

The subsidies allocated for installing fossil-fuel-based heating systems in buildings should cease by 2024. Instead, these public funds should be reallocated to enhance energy efficiency, building renovation and the transition of district heating systems to renewable sources. Put a stop to flexibilities and exemptions that would enable heating systems using hydrogen and biogas in a blended mix with fossil gas to be installed in existing and new buildings. These systems undermine climate and energy objectives, while also binding occupants to environmentally harmful heating technologies for an extended period. Instead, prioritise renewable heating installations that will guide us toward the complete elimination of fossil fuels in buildings by no later than 2035.

Homeowners need to be guided and accompanied from start of the process right through to the end as they switch heating technology and/or renovate their homes. A network of national, regional and local one-stop-shops and other sources of free-of-charge, independent information, would help homeowners and tenants, especially the most vulnerable, identify and access financial support, refine their project, and even check installers offers and the quality of the installations carried out. Public authorities and other organisations providing such services should work with social services, local associations and identify and proactively reach out to people in need of support. Such schemes not only support citizens in their projects, but they also help make those providing advice more aware of citizens’ situations and needs.

Public information campaigns can promote the opportunity for renewable heating technologies and highlight how they can benefit households and businesses. There is evidence from countries like Sweden and Germany that a successful renewable heating transition requires significant investment in strategic communications.

Governments and manufacturers need to step up their efforts to promote this sector and entice a new workforce to install renewable heating systems. They first need to make current installers aware of renewable heating technologies, their importance, benefits, applications, etc. This will make installers more willing to recommend such technologies to their customers. In addition, to attract new installers, and boost training, governments and the private sector need to team up in a concerted recruitment and training effort. Financial and political support should be offered to facilitate the unionisation of workers engaged in new green jobs.

As a result of a strong post-Covid recovery and geopolitical tensions, resources and materials for renewable heating systems are limited. In the short term, this issue can be addressed by installers of renewable heating equipment by diversifying suppliers and pre-ordering some equipment to make sure there is a stock to offer to clients. Long-term supply chain disruptions could lead to partial or total relocalisation of the renewable heating industry, particularly in former coal and industrial regions which can be funded by the Just Transition Fund, among others.

Based on CAN Europes report Embracing a renewable heating revolution in our buildings!  https://caneurope.org/renewable-heating-barriers-solutions/

and CAN Europes Build Better Lives statement https://buildbetterlives.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Copy-of-Statement...


Emilia Samuelsson


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