Originally published on EURACTIV on Wednesday 10th November 2021.

In times of climate crisis, it is no longer acceptable that our buildings swallow up so much of the limited energy resources and leave our citizens so vulnerable to energy price hikes, writes Adrian Joyce.

Adrian Joyce is director of the Renovate Europe Campaign.

Building renovations can slash greenhouse gas emissions and massively improve human health. But if renovations are cosmetic fixes only, we risk undermining climate policies at a time when we really cannot afford to.

A ‘deep renovation’ standard in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is a crucial stepping-stone towards more highly energy efficient renovations.

The scale of the challenge is huge: more than 97% of the building stock in the EU hold a below-A grading. As a result, a high of 40% of the EU’s energy supply is soaked up by buildings, and about 36% of CO2 emissions are released from our leaky building stock. Those figures have to come down, and fast.

Renovations are the way to do that, by upgrading homes, offices, and other buildings so that less energy is used and not wasted.

In a time of high energy prices and restricted economic abundance post-COVID, channelling investments towards energy renovation is the right thing to do. We know that technologies available today can bring down energy demand by 80% in existing buildings, thereby relieving the pressure on consumer energy bills.

But on energy renovation we cannot afford half measures.

Energy renovation rates are barely reaching 1% per year. Boosting this number is a key priority to keep the EU on track for its climate neutrality objective. But there will be little benefit to climate policies if the renovation rate goes up without unlocking massive energy savings in the process.

Many people, especially homeowners, will see renovation works as a one-time deal, not to be repeated. Renovations are often a resource-intensive undertaking, both in terms of financing and time. It must either be fit-for-purpose on day 1, or be designed to be fit-for-purpose with a coherent plan for the longer-term (known as staged renovation).

If a family or business-owner opts for renovation works covering only one aspect of the building with no plan for the rest, then this will lock in energy savings and end up costing them more down the line when they seek to renovate again to capture the full energy savings potential. Integrating such measures into a coherent roadmap with a clear path to A-grading from the start is essential.

EU push towards renovations

The success of the EU’s much needed ‘Renovation Wave’ will be measured not only by the quantity but also by the quality of the renovations – because we need to ensure that the building upgrades that do happen are not just cosmetic fixes. They must do the job.

The European Commission considers renovations that yield 60% savings to be ‘deep renovations’, and deep is definitely what we need if we want the building stock to contribute its fair share in demand reduction and lowered CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, despite the climate crisis and rising energy prices, many renovations undertaken are far from reaching the 60% mark, let alone the 80% energy savings which is technologically feasible in most buildings.

Analysis of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans shows that most of the renovation investments planned under the Recovery Fund will deliver only 30% energy savings, the bare minimum stipulated in the Commission Guidelines. Member states have the opportunity to course-correct and increase the energy savings during the implementation, so as to ensure such an unprecedented injection of public funds falls in line with the EU climate-neutrality objectives.

Another incitement to renovation is the Sustainable Finance Taxonomy, the playbook that is meant to guide green investments in the years to come. Here again, we find a threshold of just 30% for energy renovations to be considered ‘sustainable’.

This gap in criteria and the lack of a common ‘deep renovation’ standard is problematic. Spending cash on renovation schemes that only offer 30% savings not only locks in assets but also jeopardises our climate policy ambitions.

Enter the EPBD

All is not lost. The Commission has pledged to develop a ‘deep renovation’ standard that can be bolted onto the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which will be updated later this year.

The review of the EPBD should also update the criteria for nearly zero-energy buildings (nZEB), which will make the gold standard of energy performance clearer and more coherent with the EU’s updated climate goals.

The ‘deep renovation’ standard will be difficult to get right, there is no doubt about that. It is easy to get 60%+ energy savings from a building that leaks heat and soaks up too much power, but this may only leave the building in the middle of the way towards climate neutrality proofing.

It is less easy to get the same gains from a building that is already efficient but could do better. That is why the standard has to account for different starting points to set all facilities on the road to climate-neutral compatible performance levels. The Commission should consider criteria that ask for savings worth at least 60% or renovations that bring energy demand down to 80kWh/m²/year. Whichever option yields the most climate-friendly building at the end of the day should be prioritised.

The standard should also consider the health impacts of renovation works by requiring the delivery of a high indoor environmental quality in conjunction with dramatically improved energy performance. It must also consider staged deep renovation described in comprehensive, tailored building renovation passports that support the coordination of the works, for when it is impossible to carry all the works at once.

In times of climate crisis, it is no longer acceptable that our buildings swallow up so much of the limited energy resources and leave our citizens vulnerable to energy price hikes. Buildings that require less energy, whilst delivering quality, health-enhancing buildings, must be the aim of the game.

All eyes will be on the ‘deep renovation’ standard in the EPBD – we cannot afford any half-measures anymore.