This article originally appeared in Euractiv, under the title ‘Build better for climate neutral cities‘
The article is written by André Sobczak, Secretary General, Eurocities.
You can’t have cities without permanent structures to provide shelter and warmth to people; to house us and enable us to carry out the tasks of daily living.
But can you have buildings without carbon emissions? That’s the long-term vision that cities across Europe strive for, playing their part in delivering a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050.
Achieving this vision is not straightforward. Firstly, buildings exist in many stages – from planning to deconstruction.
Carbon neutrality means considering the entire life cycle of buildings; that they are constructed and refurbished in zero emissions construction sites, and, ultimately, that we should move towards creating positive energy buildings.
Then, of course, there is the long phase – the standing time of a building. It is estimated that around 80% of the buildings currently standing in Europe will still be there in the year 2050.
Given that city administrations often own large portfolios of buildings, from schools and hospitals to housing units and cultural landmarks, and that we have urban planning competencies, there is much that we can do for ourselves, with our partners, and to encourage a market shift towards greener buildings.
Reducing energy consumption
In the current context of energy crisis, demand-side solutions to reduce energy consumption are becoming more urgent.
Given that buildings account for an estimated 40% of energy consumption in Europe, it is unsurprising that many cities are heavily engaged in ambitious actions to reduce energy demand.
One of the best ways to do this is through the establishment of one-stop shops at the local level, offering free and trusted advice to households in their building renovation plans. This is the case of the Valencia Climate and Energy Foundation, which gives advice and trains citizens on their building renovation projects.
Thanks to the palpable success and ever-increasing demand from Valencians, the city is currently in the process of setting up two more such offices. Another success story is the AMELIO network of advisors in the Lille Metropolitan area, which has already advised over 20,000 households since 2014.
Many cities, such as Zagreb, have come up with alternative ways of providing free advice for vulnerable households. A partnership set up in 2018 between an NGO, the city council and university-trained students offers simple energy audits and low-cost improvements in households that have had troubles paying their energy bills.
The ongoing energy crisis and the need to immediately reduce our energy consumption, in order to save on bills, has also been a wake-up call for many homeowners, who have embarked on building renovation projects.
The Hauskunft integrated home renovation service in Vienna used to provide renovation advice to an average of 80-100 people per month. However, since the start of Russian aggression in Ukraine, this has increased to almost 400 homeowners per month.
Another example is the Ghent energy renovation one-stop-shop where requests for building renovation advice have quadrupled in the last year.
The EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive has, over the past 12 years, supported cities to deliver energy renovations and ensure new buildings meet nearly zero energy standards.
The current revisions of this piece of legislation represent a major opportunity to address energy efficiency, embodied carbon, affordability and standards for old and new buildings to meet the EU’s updated climate objectives of climate neutrality by 2050.
First up on the list of priorities should be to establish a clear roadmap to achieving the proposed target of 3% renovation per year, by introducing a European framework for the Minimum Energy Performance Standard of buildings.
As our cities continue to expand, setting standards for new builds is equally important to standards for the renovation of older ones, and these considerations should be extended to all residential and non-residential buildings.
To ensure that more cities can follow the kinds of examples shared above, there should be dedicated EU, national and regional funding and support.
For instance, to set up and run innovative local initiatives such as one-stop shops, most cities still need to increase their technical assistance (particularly during the project development phase).
Moreover, tackling energy poverty and supporting vulnerable groups by working with tenants should be key to ensuring that renovation costs do not become a burden for residents.
Last but not least, EU Member States must engage in multi-level dialogue, including in national Long-Term-Renovation-Strategies, with their respective local and regional governments to facilitate the inclusion of local actions and planned investments into the national building renovation plans, because without local-level support these plans may as well remain paper targets.
When I speak with mayors and city leaders there is a clear will to take action and a palpable belief that such targets can be achieved, if cities are equipped to deliver on them.
For policies that stand the test of time, say, of the life span of a building, a combined effort is the only way to make a climate-neutral Europe a reality.
The Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal is an initiative of Eurocities that gathers together city leaders who are dedicated to making the sustainable transition possible.