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The slow road to eco-renovation of existing buildings

The only way the world can possibly tackle climate change successfully is to decarbonise existing buildings at pace, in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommendation that global carbon emissions should reach zero by 2050 to limit warming below 1.5C.

This is proving particularly difficult, but it’s not stopping leading industry players from trying.

Eight European cities have just pledged to completely decarbonise their existing building stocks by 2050

In a commitment called Build Upon2 convened by the World Green Building Council, these cities will together develop, implement and test a multi-level renovation impact framework using a set of progress indicators including emissions reductions, job creation and better health.

The cities are:

  • Velika Gorica, Croatia
  • Budaörs, Hungary
  • Dublin, Ireland
  • Padova, Italy
  • Wroclaw, Poland
  • Madrid, Spain
  • Eski?ehir, Turkey
  • Leeds, UK,

As the framework is implemented over the years, these cities will be required to use local-level data to lobby for national policymakers to set equally ambitious net-zero legislation for buildings.

They aim to prove that net zero is possible for the built environment sector in urban environments.

There are now more than 50 signatories to the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, launched in September 2018, listed in its new Advancing Net Zero Status Report.

Nine new net zero carbon certification schemes

This Net Zero Status Report also lists nine new net zero carbon certification schemes (from France, Canada, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Sweden, India, USA) and two frameworks (from the Netherlands and the UK) that have recently been set up.

The UK net zero carbon certification framework has been developed by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) to provide the industry with clarity on how to achieve net zero carbon in construction and operation.

It is part of the UKGBC’s own Advancing Net Zero program, inspired by the WorldGBC’s own global Advancing Net Zero project. It’s the product of working with a range of industry stakeholders, including a task group, to build consensus on a framework definition suitable for the UK, in both construction and operation (in-use energy consumption), and on starting to address whole life carbon in the industry.

This is a freely available resource for use by building developers, designers, owners, occupiers and policy makers.

New European targets

Meanwhile in Brussels, EU heads of state are expected to agree on the EU’s future strategic agenda soon. Energy ministers will also be deciding the future of energy systems in the Energy Union and Europe’s external energy relations.

To coincide with this, Eurima (the European Insulation Manufacturers Association) is lobbying for urgent action on building renovations at the legislative level, with Jan te Bos, its director-general, arguing that Europe will not be able to meet its climate objectives or lift millions of households from energy poverty without this.

“We need a full transformation of our building stock within three decades to tackle the twin crises of climate emergency and inequality,” he said in a statement. “This means that EU leaders should prioritise unlocking massive investments for affordable, comfortable and energy-efficient housing.”

Building renovations are still happening too slowly and incrementally to meet climate commitments, he said.

“The buildings sector can fully decarbonise using solutions that are commercially available today, such as better insulation. But much more action on the ground is needed including dedicated finance and the upskilling of workers,” te Bos said.

“Furthermore, millions of EU families are still living in unhealthy houses that they cannot afford to properly heat or cool. By investing in better buildings, EU leaders can show that climate action goes hand in hand with good living and working conditions for all.”

Eurima has developed an action plan “Better buildings for a better future” that sets out priorities for incoming EU policymakers. This includes: setting up a dedicated building renovation fund to leverage the additional 130 billion euro needed every year for energy-efficiency investments in buildings, phasing out the worst energy performing buildings, and introducing building renovation passports.

The action plan is launched alongside an Arcadis report on the future of the European built environment.

Last week also saw the Energy Efficiency Global Forum, in Washington, at which the US Alliance to Save Energy launched yet another new global coalition for advancing energy efficiency, and a G20 conference on financing energy efficiency happened in Tokyo.

This is all good, but with just 390 buildings certified globally as net zero carbon according to the Net Zero Status Report, unless the pace of renovation and money invested picks up exponentially, there is no way that the 1.5C IPCC target will be met.

David Thorpe is the author of Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference, Energy Management in Buildings and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

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