Cash, know-how and public support: The recipe for hitting Europe’s green building targets
This article is the product of a POLITICO Working Group, presented by Holcim.
If the EU wants to meet its 2050 net-zero target, it needs to rethink the way it builds its cities.
The bloc’s building stock is currently responsible for 40 percent of total energy consumption and 36 percent of the bloc’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions — that means slashing those emissions will be key to hitting overall climate goals.
The EU has set a target of reducing buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by the end of the decade and ensuring buildings are fully decarbonized by 2050.
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To get there, Brussels is requiring the bloc to slash energy consumption by 11.7 percent by 2030, with part of that cut achieved with the mandatory renovation of public buildings. It is also revising rules on energy performance for buildings — now being negotiated by the Parliament and EU capitals — to compel countries to ensure their worst-performing buildings reach higher energy-efficiency classes in the next decade.
But countries and cities face major challenges in turning those aspirations into reality.
One big obstacle is the cost involved. Decarbonized building materials like low-carbon concrete and net-zero steel are more expensive than traditional ones, meaning they’re still not widely used.
Emmanuelle Maire, head of unit for circular economy, sustainable production and consumption at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment, said local governments could play a key role in making those products more affordable.
“As a whole, public administrations move a lot of money and can be drivers of change,” she said. “We shouldn’t be focusing on buying cheap, but rather on ensuring we pay attention to the green dimension when we build.”
“A lot of public administrations are already doing this voluntarily, many times using the green public procurement criteria for some types of buildings recommended by the Commission and that are currently being updated,” Maire added.
The Commission later added that it has proposed introducing binding criteria on construction materials as part of a revision of the Construction Products Regulation that’s currently under negotiation with the Parliament and Council.
Miljan Gutovic, Europe regional head for the Holcim construction group, said industry also sees the public sector as pivotal to greening the bloc’s building stock.
Pointing out that public contracts account for roughly 14 percent of the EU’s GDP, Gutovic argued that green requirements in municipal building contracts would help create demand for decarbonized building materials and lower the cost.
“In places like Zurich, for instance, to qualify for public procurement buildings now have to contain at least 25 percent of recycled materials,” he said. “Green procurement should already be mandatory.”
While greener projects may initially be more expensive to build, in most cases they’ll ultimately cost the city less in the long term, said Leslie Petitjean, circular economy officer for ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, an association of local administrations that promotes sustainability.
“The energy crisis has actually made it more apparent to local administrations that energy-efficient buildings use far less power and cost less during the use stage of the building,” she said. “It also helps to point out that local jobs can be created by these projects.”
If local jobs can be created, the question of who will fill them remains problematic.
Stefan Moser, head of unit for the energy performance of buildings and products at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy, said Europe currently doesn’t have nearly enough trained construction workers to reach its goals to improve and decarbonize our buildings.
“If we don’t make an exceptional additional effort, we’re going to have a huge gap in numbers and skills,” said Moser, who also stressed improving working conditions for workers.
“Today many workers have bad working conditions and that makes it difficult for the sector to attract the numbers we need,” Moser said. “We need to highlight the contribution [of the construction sector to society] to make it attractive to young people who want to use their skills to make a difference, and we have to have attractive salaries and working conditions that match those skills.”
Moser also argued that the EU needs to cultivate support for its green building revolution. “To avoid pushback and justify higher costs we need to frame this as an investment in society, in energy savings and improvements to quality of life for everyone,” he said.
Irish MEP Ciarán Cuffe, who led the European Parliament’s work on EU rules on the energy performance of buildings, said one way to get people on board was to highlight the benefits of recent green construction projects.
“Close to where I live in Dublin the city has renovated social housing for older persons and people can see how that’s meant a genuine improvement in vulnerable people’s lives — better health outcome, happier people, warmer homes,” he said. “Let’s renovate town halls, sure, but let’s showcase the public housing we improve and use these success stories to make everyone want this.”
This article is product of a Working Group, presented by Holcim, and was produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.