The spark for energy efficient buildings

15 March 2023

Three years after the European Green Deal prescribed that Europe would become the first climate neutral continent by 2050 and two years after the European Climate Law enacted a precedent to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030, one of the last acts of the so-called ‘Fit For 55’ package was ratified by the European Parliament yesterday.

The revision of the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive aims to update a 12-year old agreement in line with today’s targets. Given that buildings account for 40% of final energy consumption in the Union and 36% of its energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, the undertaking is no mean feat.

And, it’s directly relevant to cities – whoever heard of a city without buildings? More to the point, the directive targets co-benefits between climate and social objectives. It has the potential to improve energy efficiency, reduce energy poverty by prioritising measures for the worst performing buildings and vulnerable households, and increase the well-being of citizens through healthier buildings.

As such, the below commentary highlights some of the most important outcomes for cities in this effort to decarbonise the building sector.

Energy performance standards

First up on the list of priorities has been establishing 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.

Cities are crucial in effectively implementing Minimum Energy Performance Standards and renovation standards. They can channel support, ensure uptake of solutions, inform the supply chain about skills and investment needs, and collect local data on which the standards are based. Therefore, the introduction of an obligation for EU member states to provide a robust financial and technical framework for implementing these standards has been welcomed by local leaders to ensure that cities can fulfil this key role.

“We are happy to finally see the introduction of a minimum energy performance framework, with a clear trajectory for cities to prioritise investments and projects. We also welcome measures that promote the reduction of whole life carbon emissions, such as including these considerations in Energy Performance Certificates, and Digital Building Logbooks,” says Eugenia Mansutti, Projects Coordinator and Policy Advisor on Environment at Eurocities.

The agreement on a unified European certification scheme that considers social fairness by ensuring that their issuance does not entail extra costs for vulnerable sectors of society means that city administrations can more smoothly guarantee the implementation of minimum energy standards.

On the other hand, the legislation has so far not addressed the existing double reporting that many local councils have reported because of requirements to carry out energy audits every four years and complying with energy performance certificates every ten years on certain buildings.

Ten thousand one-stop shops

“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,” says André Sobczak, Secretary General, Eurocities.

Locally established one-stop shops are already vital to speed up the EU building renovation rate. One-stop shops raise awareness and encourage residents to embark on building renovation plans while avoiding the time-consuming renovation process of bureaucracy and hidden costs. Most importantly, they provide free and trusted advice to vulnerable households, offering them an opportunity to renovate their houses while tackling energy poverty. However, to set up and run innovative local initiatives such as one-stop shops, especially to benefit more vulnerable and at-risk households, most cities still need to increase their technical assistance (particularly during the project development phase).

With this in mind, the agreement yesterday to establish at least 1 one-stop shop per 45,000 inhabitants will go a long way to ensuring everyone has access to trusted advice on renovations.

Future fit

Meanwhile, with the impact of climate change likely to increase in frequency and intensity, but remain hard to predict, an obligation to include the assessment of the likely impact of climate change for all new private and public buildings in the planning phase will help ensure we have cities that are fit for the future.

Hand in hand with this is the consideration of our future mobility habits. The Right to Plug and the strong push for charging infrastructure, obliging EU member states to install charging points (including in non-residential buildings) and remove administrative barriers from public authorities or grid operators, will concurrently help to decarbonise the transport sector, and needs the involvement of the local level to work.

A local approach

Eurocities’ proposal to consider buildings as part of a system at district level, to further enhance the approach to energy savings, mobility, social inclusion and other aspects of urban planning, was taken on board in the wording to empower local and regional authorities to identify Integrated Renovation Programmes. Because of their multiple competencies and understanding of local needs, cities are best positioned to design and implement such integrated strategies. Moreover, targeted renovations are crucial to realise the needed energy savings, and lower energy bills, in line with the just approved Energy Efficiency Directive.

As recommended in Eurocities policy statement, the introduction of renovation pathways to zero-emission buildings by 2050, will make it easier for cities to determine the best options for their current environment locally. It is important for cities to have flexibility, especially concerning deep energy renovation, to decide the best approach, whether a staged-pathway or a single renovation process, depending on their local market, information and financial support available.

Solar mandate

Another hurdle to clear locally has been to ease permit procedures for small solar installations and level the playing field for local energy communities.

“An ambitious take up of solar energy is crucial to decarbonise the building stock and contribute to the EU’s energy independence goals. However, we would have welcomed a better definition of technical feasibility criteria and a more ambitious timeline, especially if it comes to buildings undergoing deep renovations,” comments Masha Smirnova, Campaign Manager for the Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal.

Power to the people

A strong component of the Fit For 55 package from the start has been its focus on mainstreaming social equity. This hasn’t been neglected in yesterday’s agreement on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive via considerations mentioned above on the Minimum Energy Performance Standards, and one-stop shops. In addition, EU Member States are now requested to make financial incentives eligible for tenants and housing cooperatives. In light of the pressures on rental costs in many cities across Europe, the agreement also underlines that costs for tenants should stay affordable after renovations.

Another route to keep people at the centre of policy is through a focus on skills. As has been established by the European Investment Bank, amongst others, the availability of people with the right skillset is the most significant obstacle to implementing investment programmes targeting the green transition. Given that the European Year of Skills will soon be a feature of the EU’s calendar, there should have been a concomitant stronger focus on training and technical assistance for local authorities in the current legislation.

The right building blocks

As we now approach the trialogue phase of these negotiations, there are many positive aspects in the current recast directive that will bring a direct benefit to cities, and which will be necessary in the challenge to stay within 1.5C warming. It will now be the task of EU member states to approve these gains, and ensure that cities have the building blocks they need to create better buildings and climate neutral cities.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer