Tackling emissions of buildings from cradle to grave – EURACTIV.com
- EU Regulation
- December 23, 2022
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When policymakers address the climate impact of buildings, most of their attention is focused on reducing emissions released during the building’s operation. Embodied emissions – those linked to all the other phases of a building’s whole life – must not be forgotten, writes Roxana Dela Fiamor.
Roxana Dela Fiamor is researcher at the climate think tank E3G.
The energy crisis is bringing to light how much of it is used up in our buildings. As this isn’t clean energy yet, the building sector contributes to a whopping 36% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Current negotiations on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive are decisive to set the EU on track to reach its 2030 climate goals. Whatever the final text is, it will indicate whether one of the biggest emitting sectors is equipped to do its share to keep the planet from overheating.
Yet, a central element to the full decarbonisation of the building sector seems to be overlooked. While most attention is focused on ensuring a substantial reduction of the emissions released during the building’s operation, embodied emissions – those linked to all the other phases of a building’s whole life – must not be forgotten.
A report published during this year’s UN Climate Conference, COP27, drives the point home: buildings are emitting all-time high amounts of CO2 and their use of raw materials is projected to rise to dizzying heights.
The ‘Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction’ states that in 2021, CO2 emissions from the buildings sector amounted to ten gigatonnes, their energy performance did not improve and buildings-integrated renewable energy growth was disappointing.
Looking ahead, the study expects the use of resources for building materials like steel and concrete to double by 2060. The report calls for urgent action: governments must multiply policy commitments, increase investments, and implement roadmaps to decarbonise the whole life cycle of buildings.
The call is timely. Despite the European Union’s launch of its Green Deal and a range of policies to reach climate neutrality by 2050, the Climate Change Performance Index shows that no European country is currently on track to fulfil the Paris Agreement. Paris-aligned action on buildings would turn the tide.
The European Commission has proposed a regulation that will require all new buildings to be emissions , and it plans for a doubling of the renovation rate to reduce operational energy use.
But if Europe is to lead the global decarbonisation of buildings and fulfil its commitments to the Paris Agreement, buildings’ full contribution to global warming must fall. This can only be achieved by making changes across the entire life cycle of a building.
If instead building renovations accelerate without regulation covering their whole life cycle emissions and total global warming potential, the EU’s policies that constitute its ‘Renovation Wave’ risk creating a massive ‘carbon payback’.
In fact, a study shows that, without a limit to the embodied carbon of construction materials and products, it can sometimes take over 50 years to offset emissions from a renovation.
Therefore, the EU must apply a whole life cycle perspective to its building and renovation policies, combining assessments of both operational and embodied carbon.
A new study by Ramboll consultancy demonstrates how the regulation of buildings’ life cycle emissions is possible and that a handful of European countries are leading the way. Denmark, Finland, France, Netherlands and Sweden have established assessment methodologies and limits for the full life-cycle emissions of buildings.
So, why not implement this approach at the EU level and regulate the life cycles of buildings for all 27 member states? By driving greater demand for low-carbon materials, it would also increase investment in innovation for buildings design, renovation techniques and industrial decarbonisation.
The potential is tremendous: the creation of low-carbon markets driven by EU global leadership in innovative products and buildings’ decarbonisation would help the EU achieve its Paris Agreement commitments.
The recipe for achieving this potential is crystal clear: establish life-cycle regulation of buildings at the EU level. The ongoing revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive is the moment to pull it off.