Hot property: Why energy efficient buildings alone will not mitigate climate change

The energy efficiency of buildings is in the spotlight. The daily operational footprint of the built environment accounts for 40% of the EU’s energy consumption, the largest of any sector in Europe, and is responsible for 36% of its GHG emissions.  Consequently, it is one of the biggest contributors to climate change in Europe.

Josefina Lindblom, Senior Policy Officer responsible for Sustainable Buildings at DG Environment in the European Commission, explains however why the full life cycle of a building needs to be considered when looking at its energy footprint beyond day-to-day operations and what the industry should be doing to prepare for the future.

While the EU’s credentials around climate change and the need to tackle its impact have been well established, implementing how society and industry is going to transition is taking us into new territory. Real estate is one good example. As an industry, it has not traditionally been the focus for EU institutions. However, the climate crisis and a broader range of ESG related initiatives, such as sustainable finance, are bringing it within its sphere. Quite simply, Europe will not hit its climate targets without systemic change in how the real estate sector invests, builds, and manages property. That is a primary concern for EU officials.

I started my current role in 2011 at DG Environment looking at the sustainability of buildings. While the concept of a green building has existed for some time, the Commission’s objective has increasingly become more holistic, seeking to reduce emissions from the sector and its overall carbon footprint. It’s not just how individual buildings operate but how they are constructed and work together, as well as whether they can be reused or repurposed in future.

With an estimated 85% of existing buildings still expected to be in use by 2050, this isn’t just about how we build, it’s also about how we renovate. Recent data suggests that the change that is needed is not happening fast enough. Given the full lifespan of a building can last many decades, this is concerning. We are going to have to be innovative in how buildings are going to produce less emissions and we need to deliver at a faster pace.

A sustainable building is more than a building that is operationally carbon neutral. Consideration must be given to the amount of energy consumed and carbon emitted in its construction or renovation, and the materials used and where they come from. How energy efficient a completed building is, doesn’t provide a simple answer. It can cost enormous amounts of carbon to make a building extremely energy efficient. We may have to use that building for 30 – 40 years to pay off its initial upfront carbon cost. At the moment this hasn’t been factored into policymaking.

Waste is also a major issue. 50% of all extracted materials go to the construction sector. Yet construction and demolition are also responsible for generating one third of all waste. This is not conducive to supporting a circular economy.

Even after a building is completed, sustainability needs to look at other issues. Such as where is it located, is it easily accessible, how do people travel to and from it? In terms of design, is the space being utilised efficiently and is it flexible enough to be reused for another purpose once the original use is no longer required, without having to comprehensively refurbish it?

The sector also doesn’t have until 2050 to find a solution. The proposed revision to the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is suggesting that all new buildings must be carbon neutral by as early as 2030. However, this only relates to the daily operational carbon footprint. Given the scale of the crisis and the challenge the sector faces, much more needs to be happening. A new way of thinking is required, anchored around the need for a much more comprehensive approach focused on the whole life carbon footprint of a building. To do this, we need data to help contribute to future benchmarking and help identify potential solutions. The companies that are best positioned for this transition are those which seek to secure their own data at the earliest opportunity and proactively prepare for change rather than wait for new regulatory compliance standards.

To help companies, the European Commission has developed Level(s). It seeks to provide the real estate and construction industries with a reporting framework that links a building’s individual performance with European policy objectives. As a pan-European framework, its main objective is to encourage the mainstream market to incorporate sustainability into its planning and to create a common language and understanding. More information can be found here.

To conclude, a sustainable built environment is dependent on far more than just delivering energy efficient buildings. It requires much broader life cycle thinking that starts with how it is built, what it is used for, how it can be reused, and how it can be recycled after its original use isn’t needed anymore. We can’t compartmentalise a building’s lifespan if we are to manage and mitigate climate change.