The EU has recognized the CO2-reducing potential of the buildings sector, but a lot remains to be done.
With the war in Ukraine dragging on, the EU is looking to accelerate its green transition in an attempt to drastically reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The European Commission will soon be proposing a new legislative package designed to increase the use of renewables and energy savings, although it still seeks to use gas from other countries. It will also cut the time it takes for renewable energy projects to receive their permits, which from now on “shall not exceed one year.”
These moves highlight the great urgency with which Brussels is pushing the green shift, already a global top priority in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. While disentangling energy networks from Russia and replacing fossil fuels with renewables is an exceedingly complex and tedious affair, there are nonetheless a few low-hanging fruit that European policymakers – at the EU and member state level – have been promoting for quick reductions on Russian resources.
The low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency
A case in point is the efficiency of buildings. In the EU, households accounted for 26% of final energy consumption in 2019, with most of the energy used for heating. The energy savings to be gained from more efficient buildings, in combination with temporary thermostat adjustments by consumers – as the IEA recommends – makes it evident that there’s ample room for cutting households’ natural gas consumption from 32% of final energy consumption to much less going forward.
Luckily, the EU has recognized the CO2-reducing potential of the sector, having enshrined greater energy efficiency of buildings in various policies until 2030, such as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. However, progress has been painfully slow, with only 0.4-1.2% of houses being upgraded each year to meet current decarbonization goals – way too few to make a meaningful impact on carbon emissions and fossil fuel use, especially now that the geopolitical environment is pitted against the EU.
Miroslav Vyboh’s Southworks experiment
Other countries, meanwhile, have already some impressive examples of hyper-efficient buildings to show for, providing a glimpse into what the future of efficient buildings could look like. Leveraging the smart tech in the form of the Internet of Things (IoT), a building in London’s Southwark district features ‘a central sensor platform functioning as the building’s “brain”’, helps to monitor environment variables such as air quality, density of occupancy and temperature, and adjusts light and energy use accordingly.
The building, the seven-story Southworks developed by Miroslav Vyboh’s investment and real estate company MiddleCap, has been gaining tenants, after having been voted the world’s “smartest building” in the people’s choice category of the 2021 Real Estate Future Proof Awards. It furthermore won the WiredScore Gold rating for its innovative digital connectivity and is the first building the UK – as well as only the second worldwide – to obtain the Platinum Smart Building Certification for how the building links digital technology with environmental optimization.
But Miroslav Vyboh is not the only developer banking on sustainability. Developer General Projects presented its own version of a sustainable building, characterized by “sustainable architecture” and the upcycling of various materials. According to the project’s website, the building upcycled roughly 22,000 kg of waste using bricks made from various waste materials.
Over in the United States, the trend towards smarter and greener buildings has been particularly pronounced in the warehouse sector, which has seen dramatic growth because of the Covid pandemic. Now, these warehouses, unlikely as it may seem, have been leading the energy efficiency revolution, with owners installing solar panels on the rooftops of their warehouse and upgrading building materials. Thus, these buildings are not only more effective in reducing their carbon footprint, but their operating costs have also dropped measurably.
All of these are examples of how energy in all kinds of buildings can be reduced. The EU’s ambitions are commendable, and Brussels has set the bar high to achieve them across the bloc. Yet if weaning itself off from Russian resources is the goal, then Europeans need to act swiftly. Otherwise, energy efficiency in buildings – if not the wider energy transition – will remain a pipe dream subject to Russia’s whims.
Image cedit: Images George Rex/Flickr