Rhein on Energy and Climate

On April 23, 2009, the European Parliament has called for all new buildings respecting zero energy and emission standards, as of 2019. This would be feasible through super-insulation combined with renewable energy covering the remaining energy needs, e.g. for heating, cooling and warm water.

Buildings account for 40 percent of global energy consumption and C02 emissions. It is therefore logical that policy makers should focus their attention on raising the energy performance of buildings, which they have not done enough.

EU member states have paid some attention to the issue since the first oil crisis in 1973. Under EU legislation passed in 2002, member states are held to establish minimum energy performance standards for new buildings and existing ones undergoing major refurbishing exceeding 100 square meter surface. Its implementation has not been very effective so far.

In November 2008, the Commission has proposed to strengthen the existing legislation by extending it to all buildings whatever their surface.

Considering the Commission proposal inadequate, the European Parliament has introduced a series of amendments, the most radical of which concerning zero energy standards.

Is it realistic to make zero energy buildings mandatory and impose zero energy standards to a certain percentage of refurbished buildings by 2019? That is an extraordinarily ambitious target for which there is no precedent, even if some countries like the UK have envisaged something of this sort.

First, it is a very long way from the few dozen zero energy buildings, which exist under optimal climatic conditions in California, China, UK and Germany and the mandatory application of a zero energy standard. From what sources should a building in northern Europe draw its renewable energy for heating during long winter months, when there is no sunshine and the next wind park might be 50 km away?

Second, from an economic point of view it would be more effective to reach out for “low energy buildings”, which may save 70-90 percent of energy requirements at substantially lower costs. A Council Directive setting out more stringent energy performance standards for new and existing buildings would be more rational. If it were possible to save two thirds or even more of present energy consumption the remaining energy for buildings might be supplied more effectively from distant wind or solar parks instead of being incorporated in the buildings.

By calling for the zero energy building the European Parliament has signalled to member states that the energy efficiency of the European building stock is in a lamentable state.

The priority should, however, be the energy performance of existing buildings. New buildings account for less than two percent of the stock. Zero energy buildings would therefore only have a marginal impact on the overall energy efficiency of the European building stock for many years to come.

In a first stage, zero energy standards should be made mandatory for big office buildings. These matter in terms of energy consumption, and they are already a testing ground, everywhere for developing the technologies necessary for generalising zero energy buildings in the next 50 years.

In parallel, the EU should promote educating architects, engineers and contractors in climate-friendly building techniques and sponsor appropriate exhibitions and discussion forums.

Before the end of the year, Council and Parliament should be able to agree on a jointly agreed text, which should contain two important amendments submitted by the EP:

· Adopt stricter EU-wide energy performance standards.

· Approve generous financial incentives for refurbishing of existing buildings, coming from member states` and EU sources, e.g. reduced VAT rates, Regional Fund and EIB.

It is important for the EU to adopt an ambitious programme for reducing C02 emissions from buildings, which might serve as a model for other countries, before the start of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in early December.

Brussels, 24.04.09 Eberhard Rhein

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