Amidst the climate and energy crisis, Europe’s ageing building stock provides a challenge—and an opportunity, says Julie Kjestrup of the VELUX Group
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
There are more benefits to energy efficiency measures than simply saving money
Climate change is happening rapidly and so are the consequences of not fighting it adequately, intentionally and consistently.
Despite scientists showing us the marked impact of climate change as well as what we need to do to mitigate it, we are not currently on the right path towards meeting the Paris Agreement and the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality goal.
Add to that the recent hike in energy prices and fast action is essential.
We can still get on track if we all play our part by taking responsibility and acting now. Our sector—the construction sector—plays a particularly important role in the transitions ahead as it is responsible for 36% of global carbon emissions, of which 26% comes from using buildings.
That means we will simply not achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement without putting the construction sector at the heart of the green transition. For that, we need a well-functioning internal market for construction products to raise standards and ensure thorough market surveillance.
And then we need to significantly increase the number and extent of renovations of existing buildings with a heightened focus on energy efficiency and indoor climate improvements.
Through inaction, the citizens of Europe will continue to pay the price, not just from climate change consequences—droughts, floods, heat waves and generally erratic weather—but also from poor living conditions.
The impact on (wasted) energy usage and energy dependency is huge. Fifty million European households are already subject to energy poverty and this figure is set to sharply increase along with mounting energy prices.
The negative effect on Europeans’ health and well-being is also significant. The average person spends around 90% of their life indoors and, according to new data that RAND Europe has put together for VELUX Group, sub-par conditions such as damp, dark, cold or excess noise, affect one in three Europeans.
The related health impacts are well known and include asthma, respiratory problems and cardiovascular disease, but new studies also document the impact of poor indoor climate on general well-being and life satisfaction, as well as on productivity and learning ability for school children.
There is also a significant economic dimension to this. For instance, reducing exposure to damp and mould and rectifying the lack of daylight in residential buildings can result in well-being benefits of around €90 billion per year—in addition to the healthcare savings that come from preventing illnesses, such as those mentioned above.
Interestingly, data from the World Health Organisation shows that investing in housing improvements has a greater positive impact on health over a two-to-four-year period than investing directly in health.
This increases the urgency of making more sustainable, resilient and energy efficient buildings. Within the next eight years, we need to increase the renovation rate to at least 2.5%, as recommended by the International Energy Agency.
If we reach that level by 2030, we will be on track to renovate most existing buildings and to make them more energy efficient, healthy and carbon neutral by 2050. That is a commitment we have already made at EU level.
All new buildings need to be Net Zero Carbon ready by 2030, meaning that they are designed with a minimum impact on carbon emissions during their lifetime, including carbon emissions from the manufacturing of materials.
Unfortunately, we have a long way to go. However, the rallying cry for action is strong and growing. Europe needs a true energy efficiency first approach with the renovation of the existing building stock at its core.
We have a window of opportunity right now. The REPowerEU plan points squarely at energy efficiency as one of the main building blocks of energy independence. At the same time, vast sums of money have been put aside for the renovation of buildings as part of national recovery and resilience plans.
These need to be made into concrete projects and be accompanied by powerful legislative frameworks that will help achieve our ambitions and unlock societal, environmental and economic benefits.
We need to make sure that the revisions currently on the legislative table—the European Performance of Buildings Directive and the Energy Efficiency Directive—create the most ambitious platform for impact and success.
Part of that concerns rethinking how we build and renovate, by focusing on a more sustainable and holistic approach to buildings, including making improvements to them, like creating healthy indoor climates.
If we succeed in this, then we could possibly help to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for Europe, while also keeping EU citizens healthy, happy and exposed to indoor environments in which they can thrive.
It is my hope that tackling the climate inside our buildings might become as important a battle as the one needed outside them. It is definitely a battle worth fighting for because buildings are a necessary part of the equation to help solve climate change. •
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