As part of the EU Green Deal, the European Commission (EC) has set the ambitious target of making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The desire to increase the energy performance and sustainability of buildings has been placed at the core of the Deal by launching the European Renovation Wave.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, or perhaps even in light of it – as people spend more time at home to limit its transmission – the energy efficiency of buildings has remained a priority on the political agenda.
To better understand why, and to explore city-level perspectives on the importance of making our buildings more sustainable, we reach out to Andreas Jaeger, Officer for Built Infrastructure & Sustainable Energy at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, a global network of more than 1,750 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. Jaeger provides insights into why the decarbonisation and greater energy efficiency of our building stock has become such a central policy priority, and discusses how ICLEI is supporting cities embarking on ambitious transformation pathways.
Europe has faced unprecedented shocks in 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Against the backdrop of human loss and deep socio-economic upheaval, why has the topic of energy efficiency in buildings remained such a political priority?
Jaeger: Indeed, 2020 has been truly challenging and we are yet to see how the pandemic will unfold in its entirety. The negative impacts at individual level and the repercussions affecting our communities and economies make it difficult to see any silver linings to the challenging situation in which we find ourselves. At ICLEI, we are determined to see opportunities in this crisis and the unmissable chance to introduce transformative approaches to redesign our communities to become more sustainable moving forward.
The pandemic has reminded us of our interdependencies, within and across our communities as well as with our natural environment. These interrelations call for integrated solutions, which ICLEI is developing and implementing on the ground via five key transition pathways – low emission, nature-based, equitable, resilient and circular development are designed to create systemic change. Further, it has helped us recognise more clearly the centrality of our homes to our wellbeing, health and the sustainability of our lives. At the same time, the response to the pandemic in Europe has also shown us that, when pressed, society and political decision-makers can respond with urgency and coherence. This political will must now be harnessed to tackle the climate crisis and buildings, which according to the EC are responsible for approximately 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions in the European Union (EU), are a key sector where efforts must be increased. Furthermore, between 50 and 125 million people in Europe are affected by energy poverty, requiring access to affordable and decent quality housing that provides security and comfort.
You mentioned the economic impacts of the pandemic. How can cities increase efforts when facing budget shortfalls due to substantially decreased tax incomes and other, arguably more pressing priorities?
Jaeger: The economic damage Europe has sustained is only beginning to dawn on us, with some impacts only due to manifest themselves in the months to come. In April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Investment Bank (EIB) predicted economic activity in the EU to decline by 7.1% this year, with a pick up to 4.8% in 2021, whilst levels of government debt are set to exceed those observed during the 2008-09 financial crisis. As we now face a second wave across the continent, the impact may be even more severe than this.
Our towns and cities are certainly feeling the budgetary impacts and regional as well as national levels are beginning to step in to buffer these hits. Many European Member States are recognizing that the construction industry has played an important role in stabilising our economies during the pandemic and the sector will be an important cornerstone for the recovery process. With regard to building-level energy efficiency measures, some national funding institutions have already raised existing subsidies for upgrades and are developing new support mechanisms. At city-level, not only the stimulation of economic activity is being recognised, but also the building and renovation sector are seen as an opportunity for creating local quality jobs, increasing energy security, reducing energy poverty and improving the quality of life and health of citizens. Overall, it would appear that the economic, social and environmental benefits are well understood at all levels.
As the building sector is being recognised as playing an important role in our economic recovery and local, regional and national governments are taking action, how is the EU supporting this?
Jaeger: The European Union has been supporting efforts to improve the sustainability of our building stocks for decades. Not only by funding EU projects, but also by raising levels of ambition by issuing key directives to be translated into national law by Member States, such as the he New Energy Performance in Buildings Directive (2018), the Energy Efficiency Directive (2012) and the Regulation on the governance of the energy union and climate action (2018/1999).
To buffer the socio-economic shocks of the pandemic and ensure a “sustainable, even, inclusive and fair” recovery, the EU agreed to establish the Next Generation EU (NGEU) recovery instrument in July 2020, making EUR 750 Billion in grants and loans available to Member States. Looking into the immediate future, the Climate Pact, seeking to catalyse broad societal engagement on climate and environment, is about to start. The Pact, which is set to place considerable emphasis on the sustainability of buildings, will seek to amplify current efforts, incubate new approaches and offer citizens, communities and organisations opportunities for exchange, learning, co-creation and collaboration.
This October, the European Renovation Wave was launched as a part of the European Green Deal. Its goal is to at least double current renovation rates in the next ten years. The initiative aims to significantly reduce GHG emissions attributed to Europe’s building stock, create new jobs, aid the economic recovery and improve the reuse and recycling of materials. To this end, the Renovation Wave will focus in particular on decarbonising heating and cooling, tackling energy poverty and renovating public buildings. I believe this flagship initiative of the Commission will have substantial positive impacts on driving and realising city-level ambition towards climate neutrality across Europe.
“Our towns and cities are certainly feeling the budgetary impacts and regional as well as national levels are beginning to step in to buffer these hits. Many European Member States are recognizing that the construction industry has played an important role in stabilising our economies during the pandemic and the sector will be an important cornerstone for the recovery process.”
ICLEI, as a network of local governments, advocates for cities at international level and offers its members peer exchange opportunities, partnerships and capacity building. How is the network influencing sustainability policy and driving local action in relation to buildings?
Jaeger: ICLEI is involved in international initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC), which works towards a zero-emission, efficient, and resilient buildings and construction sector. Moreover, we have been and continue to be engaged in numerous European projects to make out built environment more sustainable, including on energy efficiency, renewable energy systems integration and cost-optimisation, protecting cultural heritage and tackling energy poverty. In the context of this involvement, we seek to bring on board our members, to enable them to develop innovative approaches to making their building stock more sustainable. The lessons learned from such projects also flow into the development of in-house knowledge products and tools to support cities implement sustainability transitions. Current Horizon 2020 projects that we are engaged, for example, include TripleA-reno, which seeks to develop a gamified platform to facilitate the customer journey for deep renovations, as well as Sav€ the Homes that has just launched and will establish ‘Citizen Hubs’, a One-Stop-Shop (OSS) inspired concept, to make home renovation processes easier, faster and more affordable for homeowners. ICLEI is engaged in technical projects such as EXCESS, which is spearheading four innovative demonstration projects, introducing solutions that enable buildings to produce more renewable energy than they consume over the course of a year.
Last but certainly not least, ICLEI engages and facilitates exchange and discussion on the building topic within the European Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, which is establishing a platform for stakeholders to discuss and share innovative and impactful solutions dedicated to local governments to further building renovation. This will serve to explore how local governments can be best engaged in the European Renovation Wave; provide opportunities for Peer-to-peer exchanges on good practices related to vertically integrating ambitious targets on energy efficiency; and improve data quality and accessibility pertaining to Europe’s building stock so as to enable evidence-based policy making (linking to the BuiltHub platform and MATRYCS).
The publication of this article is part of a partnership between Smart Cities magazine and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, and was originally published in the October / November / December 2020 edition of Smart Cities. Available in Portuguese.