Heat or eat? How efficient buildings today can save lives tomorrow

An electric bus drives past high-rise flats in the northern Springburn district in Glasgow, United Kingdom, July 22, 2021

An electric bus drives past high-rise flats in the northern Springburn district in Glasgow, United Kingdom, July 22, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Dan Phillips

To save energy, slash household bills and emissions by renovating buildings - the EU must direct funding to those who need it most

Eva Brardinelli is buildings policy expert at CAN Europe and Mónica Vidal is heating campaigner at CAN Europe.

In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis compounded by volatile energy prices, Europe's large inefficient building stock and our high dependence on fossil fuels has become a public health crisis. Many people across Europe are living in unfit housing, which poses serious health risks and financial problems to households.

The overhaul of the EU's  Energy Performance Buildings Directive (EPBD) - which seeks to cut energy use, curb household bills and slash greenhouse gas emissions - offers a major opportunity to decarbonise the EU's building stock and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. 

It is one of the last remaining pieces of legislation within a series of bills which aim to cut the bloc's net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels.

While ambitious rules for Europe's buildings are crucial for the bloc to achieve its climate and energy goals, there is also a large social and health element that policymakers cannot afford to overlook. 

Reducing energy consumption and costs, creating healthier and more comfortable homes, and lifting millions out of energy poverty are some of the long-term solutions that a socially and environmentally sound EPBD can deliver. However, this must be done in an inclusive manner with strong social safeguards in place.

Go DeeperGreen-minded Glasgow seeks to heat homes from river and air

Not fit for purpose

Extreme climate events such as deadly summer heatwaves and flash flooding are becoming more frequent as the new climate reality takes hold. Last summer, nearly  61,700 people died in Europe, specifically due to the heat. It is estimated that up to 90,000 Europeans could die from extreme heat every year by 2100 if no measures are taken to limit global temperature rise. This doesn't take into account the inability of many people to keep their home at a comfortable temperature during these record- breaking summers.

On the flipside, rising energy prices made last winter difficult for many, especially for the most vulnerable households, when some were forced to choose between heating and eating. In fact, estimates show that higher energy bills resulted in 68,000 deaths last winter as more people were forced to live in colder conditions.

The cost of inaction

This crisis can be traced back to decades of political inaction by EU and national policy- makers when it comes to improving the energy performance of buildings in the EU. With 75% of EU buildings deemed inefficient, the number of households that have fallen into energy poverty has soared. From 2020 to 2022, the percentage of EU households that could not adequately warm their homes rose from 7.5% to 9.3%, meaning that approximately over 41 million people now live in energy poverty in the EU.

Heating is one of the biggest expenses when it comes to many household budgets. At present, there are about 68 million gas and 18 million oil boilers in residential buildings across the EU.

Replacing 30 million oil and gas boilers with new heat pumps by 2030 could result in a 36% reduction of the gas and oil consumption in these buildings  and a 28% reduction of their CO2 emissions.

Better buildings today for better lives tomorrow

To achieve this, public financing should be redirected away from supporting fossil fuels and towards improving energy efficiency, building renovations and the installation of renewable heating and cooling technologies in the residential sector and beyond.

For a just energy transition, sufficient EU and national funding should be allocated first to renovating the worst-performing homes, protecting those most at risk from climate extremes.

However, renovating Europe's buildings, especially homes, will require efforts from both the private and public sector to overcome bottlenecks.

Governments and the private sector need to join forces to scale up recruitment and training for engineers, installers, architects and planners to implement these widespread renovations.

They need to ensure good working conditions, create decent and direct job opportunities, improve qualification requirements, and roll-out large-scale educational initiatives to ensure an adequate supply of qualified workers.

This all starts with delivering a socially and environmentally sound EU buildings law. As discussions between the EU's institutions continue, it is crucial that European and national policymakers recognise the potential a holistic deep renovation wave has for addressing the multiple crises Europe now faces.

It is in their hands to deliver a legislative framework that prioritises the most vulnerable households and the leakiest buildings, and encompasses financial support, technical aid and strong social protection to put it into practice.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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