Focus Energy efficiency

04.06.2021

Building and renovating existing buildings sustainably: this is what it takes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Europe

Scientists at EASAC propose key changes to building policies given that in Europe 25% of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by buildings
European citizens spend most of their time inside buildings. For that reason, the quality of the internal environment has a great impact on the health of its occupants, how they perform their work and the activities they carry out. To ensure an optimum indoor climate, energy is needed to power the heating, cooling and ventilation systems.

Today, all over Europe, most of this energy is supplied by fossil fuels: 25% of the old world’s total greenhouse emissions come, in fact, from buildings, and to reach the goals established by the Paris Agreement, every one of the 250 million buildings in the EU needs to meet nearly zero-emissions standards, just like new buildings.

This is the situation presented in the new report released by EASAC, the European Council made up of the national science academies of EU member states, founded twenty years ago at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

William Gillet, Director of the energy programme at EASAC, says that there has been a lot of focus over the last few years on creating highly energy-efficient buildings, especially by reducing the need for heating and air-conditioning and generating renewable energy on site. But that is not enough. When calculating the energy impact of new buildings, not only the emissions from the buildings themselves but also the emissions from the construction methods and construction material supply chain need to be taken into account.
 

Building has to become circular and sustainable

Up until now, European policies have focused on the nearly zero-energy building, or NZEB, concept in order to reduce the energy used by the building to provide its occupants comfort. But according to EASAC, we need to move beyond this concept“The indicator to be used now for assessing the climate impact of a new building or renovation should be cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, including embodied emissions produced by the building works and operating emissions produced by the building in the years following those works”, continued Gillet.

The published report, in fact, highlights that a circular system needs to be adopted at a European level in the building construction sector as well, so that at least part of the construction materials can be recycled and recovered, and that the building’s components should be designed to be easily dismantled and reused at the end of their life cycle.

Renovating the existing building stock: EASAC’s strategy

According to EASAC, a strategic priority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach Europe’s climate goals is renovating the existing buildings instead of continuing to build new ones. Renovation, in fact, has become very simple and affordable thanks to the latest technical and technological developments in the building construction sector.

This is a big challenge, as Brian Norton, co-chair of the EASAC working group, explains: “75% of the buildings Europeans live in are estimated to have a poor energy performance. To renovate them would require 146 million renovations in only 30 years. Member States’ current efforts are not sufficient. Achieving climate neutrality implies we need to renovate more than 90.000 homes per week across the EU".

However, in this huge challenge, the authors stress that a key role is played not only by EU decision-makers but also by the cities, which with their municipal councils, urban planners, and contracts can stimulate the construction of nearly zero-emissions buildings and neighbourhoods.

EASAC closed the report with a list of messages to politicians who can contribute in making the entire building construction sector more sustainable:
 
  1. phase out fossil fuels by 2030, increase the supply of decarbonised electricity and accelerate carbon dioxide capture and storage;
     
  2. use grants and incentives to stimulate private financing for energy renovation of buildings;
     
  3. regulate greenhouse emission levels embodied in building materials and components and promote their circularity;
     
  4. re-focus building regulations, certification schemes and incentives;
     
  5. promote health and well-being by improving the quality of the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions;
     
  6. support public authorities and cities to decarbonise buildings;
     
  7. expand and modernise the building construction sector, making it circular;
     
  8. improve access for building owners and professionals to certified data on building-related greenhouse gas emissions;
     
  9. update the European legislation using an integrated approach to phase out fossil fuels, increase renewables and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.