19th May 2022

Buildings to play key role in global warming fight

  • Property ads in the future may also mention buildings' energy efficiency amongst their selling points (Photo: Living Tomorrow)

Buildings are major consumers of energy and responsible for around 40 percent of EU citizens' energy consumption as well as over 40 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the bloc. But EU member states are falling behind in achieving the goals they have set themselves in this area.

A recent UN study concluded that improving building standards could play a key role in combating climate change. The European Construction Industry Federation even argues that buildings offer the largest potential for the most cost-effective solutions to cut CO2 emissions – more than in the industry or transport sectors.

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Using Europe as an example, the UN report - Buildings and Climate Change: Status, Challenges and Opportunities – argues that more than one-fifth of present energy consumption and up to 45 million tonnes of CO2 per year could be saved by 2010 by applying more ambitious standards to Europe's 170 million new and existing buildings.

To achieve this, it argues, will require the right mix of government regulation, financial incentives, behavioural change and increased installation of energy saving measures.

Typically more than 80 percent of the total energy consumption takes place during the use of buildings, and less than 20 percent while being constructed. And most of this 80 percent is used on warming and cooling space.

The report therefore pushes for a greater use of existing technologies like thermal insulation, solar shading and more efficient lighting and electrical appliances, while underlining the importance of educational and awareness campaigns.

It also emphasizes that the building sector stakeholders themselves, including investors, architects, property developers, construction companies and tenants need to understand and support such policies in order for them to function effectively.

The innovators

As temperatures are expected to rise, more and more energy will be spent on cooling, says Philip Meyfroot from Living Tomorrow – an innovative building project in Belgium called the House, Office and Creative Industries of the Future.

He explained that energy waste in lighting and heating is being fixed with energy saving light bulbs; infrared detectors - to turn off lights automatically when not in use, good insulation, double glazing and other modern forms of heating systems.

Mr Meyfroot believes the solution to using less energy on cooling in the future is intelligent solar shading; the orientation of the building; dimensions of the windows, but adds that people must also adapt to the warmer temperatures in the future.

Increasingly more companies and individuals will invest in renewable energy devices to install in their buildings and homes, argued Mr Meyfroot. "Not just for the benefits, but also for the corporate image and because the value of a house with these installations will increase."

His comment was echoed by German transport and urban affairs minister Wolfgang Tiefensee who in April said that "in the future, property ads might say not just 'balcony, two rooms, quiet area' but also mention its energy efficiency."

But Mr Meyfroot pointed out that not only new buildings should be environmentally friendly. "Renovation is also important."

Coincidentally, one of the world's most environmentally-friendly offices is located just a few kilometres from the 'house of the future' in a 120 year-old listed house in the centre of the EU capital, Brussels.

After being renovated in 2005, it now houses the offices of the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) - an umbrella group of the European renewable energy sector – and the energy consumed comes only from renewable energy produced in, on and under the building or bought if needed.

Moreover, the 2000 square metre building's energy consumption was nearly halved compared to the energy typically used in offices of the same size.

Heating and cooling comes from biomass, geothermal, wood pellets and solar sources, while electricity is produced using the latest photovoltaic technologies.

The house also benefits from ventilation with a high level of heat recovery, a fully insulated façade and roof, double-glazed windows and highly-efficient lights.

Member states falling behind

As a whole however, the EU leaves a lot to be desired on energy efficiency in buildings. EU member states in 2002 signed up to a directive on improving the energy performance in buildings across the bloc, but governments have been slow in implementing the law.

The European Commission in February 2006 took the first step towards legal action against the member states for not living up to their promises by sending infringement letters to 16 out of the then 25 member states.

"Infringement procedures have begun and we will take them [EU member states] to the [European] Court of Justice if necessary," commission spokesman Ferran Tarradellas Espuny said. "Some of the countries which have transposed the directive, have transposed it badly," he added.

It is "essential" that member states follow this directive because there is a huge potential for energy saving in buildings, he explained, but admitted that the directive was "complex".

One of the commitments for the directive requires that buildings will need 'energy performance certificates' and that needs a new sector of energy efficiency inspectors. "We don't have enough inspectors and it takes time to train them," Mr Tarradellas said.

Some EU capitals have chosen to delay implementation until 2009 with a clause in the directive that allows member states to delay implementation for three years if there is a lack of "accredited experts" to produce energy certificates.

The issue of energy efficiency in buildings may be further developed as part of the commission's energy efficiency action plan at the beginning of 2008.

In the meantime, EU member states will have to submit by the end of this month their first national energy efficient action plan (NEEAP) to the Commission, following a 2006 Energy End-use Efficiency and Energy Services Directive (ESD).

These plans are to outline how member states are to achieve the nine percent energy savings target laid out in the ESD by 2016 and buildings are one of the areas where substantial energy savings can be made.

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