20 October, 2022

Decarbonising Buildings: the road ahead


On Friday 7th October 2022 I spoke at the Irish Building and Design Awards at the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Thanks to Louis Gunnigan, my former colleague from TU Dublin for the invitation! I explained what the European Union is doing about tackling climate change, and I spoke specifically about the challenges that we face in the building sector. Here’s what I said:

I want to talk to you about a revolution. Do not panic, it is a gentle revolution, and you are already part of it. In fact, we are living through it. Called the European Green Deal, it is the ‘big idea' behind the European Union’s actions over recent years. Initiated by European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, it underpins the work of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament. Some see it as a growth strategy, some see it as a means for a Just Transition, and others see it as a mechanism that can deliver the climate action that science demands over the coming years. It changes the way we produce and use energy; the way we travel, the food we grow and eat, and lastly, and importantly the buildings that we construct and renovate.

Agriculture, Energy, Transport, Construction: all these sectors are adapting to meet the demands of our changing climate. Of course, we cannot just clap our hands and say, ‘Make it so!” We need new laws, and revisions of the existing ones to decarbonise Europe, and currently there are about twenty draft laws on the table. The Energy Efficiency Directive, the Renewable Energy Directive, and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive are all being updated to meet our new ambition. They are part of the so-called ‘Fit for 55’ package, aiming to reduce emissions by 55% between 1990 and 2030, no easy task.

Since the European Green Deal launched, we have seen Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, and our energy supplies from Russia are reducing. However, we want to be completely independent from Russian fossil fuels before 2030, and that is the overarching aim of the EU’s ‘RePowerEU plan’. A central element is installing a massive number of solar panels and heat pumps in the coming years.
I am the rapporteur or chief negotiator on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, and it will play a central role in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, rolling out renewable technologies to homes across Europe, and achieving our climate goals.   

Research tells us that the buildings that house the 450 million people living in the EU consume 40% of the energy and are responsible for 36% of the greenhouse gas emissions. This impact is enormous, and that is why we need to decarbonise our new buildings, and the existing building stock to reach near zero emissions by 2050. 80%/90% of the buildings we use today will still be with us in 2050, so renovating the existing stock will be crucial. Retrofitting existing buildings to an A rating is quite the challenge over the next 25/30 years. The most sustainable building is the one that already exists. And there will be opt-outs for Protected Structures. We have no intention to put a rooflight over the Pantheon or apply external insulation.

With the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, I am pushing for very ambitious targets. However, I must collaborate with colleagues from different political groups, and I suspect my ambition will be tempered by their cautiousness. The final draft of this legislation should be approved by the middle of next year. For now, allow me to give you an overview of what we want to achieve from the outset.

First, we want to have one-stop shops in every country that can provide free impartial advice for energy upgrades to households and businesses, and we want to prioritise a neighbourhood approach so that communities can work together to reduce their bills and achieve savings with economies of scale.

Second, we have ambitious plans on electrification. We want to phase out the installation of heating units that use gas or oil, and electrify everything our heating needs, and yes, we need to reinforce the grid to make this happen. We want EV charging installations in all new buildings from 2025.

Third, a key element in the new law will be Minimum Energy Performance Standards for new buildings and upgrades, so that we are firmly on a glide-path to an A-rating for most buildings in the coming years. Of course, these are in place in Ireland for new builds, but many other countries do not have these. Of course, social safeguards will be required to protect tenants who may be at risk of renoviction.

Fourth, we have pushed for all new buildings to be Zero Emission Buildings by 2025 for residential, < 60 kW/m2 pa, but using renewable sources either generated on site; from renewable energy communities; or from district heating systems. We want existing buildings to achieve a C rating by 2030, though this target may be pushed back in the political discussions that we are having. The key moment to undertake works is at the trigger point when a building is sold or leased. We of course differentiate between existing and new buildings, public and private, housing, and other uses and have different targets accordingly. We know there are bottlenecks and shortages in terms of skills, and materials, but these will reduce over time. We also know it will create jobs, perhaps half a million by the end of the decade and these are professional, skilled, and unskilled jobs that will support local and regional economies across the EU.

Finally, we need the money. The cost of these works will run to trillions of euro. But from the conversations I am having with financial institutions they are saying they want to lend and will do so once the legislation is enacted. And the rates of return will increase as we rely less on expensive fossil fuels, and the returns will be predictable. Even the European Investment Bank is rebranding itself as the Climate Bank, and it is already lending to local authorities here in Dublin to fund deep renovations. 

Friends, colleagues, the aim of the EPBD is to decarbonise all buildings in the EU by 2050, and this is no mean feat. We will need ambition, money, skills, and supplies to get us there. As members of this industry - whether you are a construction worker, an architect, a supplier of renewable technologies, or a building owner - we all have a role to play in this gentle revolution. I know many of you are already meeting or exceeding these targets in your work, and that is fantastic to see. It is great to have you with us on this, and I wish you the very best with the work that lies ahead.

Uploaded 20 October 2022