Is it time to change our priorities for mitigating GHG emissions from energy efficiency improvements?

I’m worried that the energy efficiency community will be accused of fake news. I think we have deluded ourselves into thinking that energy efficiency really will be the most cost-effective way to achieve impressive greenhouse gas emission reductions. We’ve been saying that for years, but…

Let’s just look at buildings. There are lots of initiatives and lots of campaigns promoting energy renovation. Campaigns such as Renovate Europe have been mainstays for years, with its ambition to reduce the energy demand of the EU building stock by 80% by 2050 through legislation and aggressive renovation programmes.

Now the European Commission is touting a ‘renovation wave’.  The EC website says: “The Renovation Wave initiative is a priority under the European Green Deal and the recovery plan for the EU, aimed at increasing the rate and quality of renovation of existing buildings and thereby help decarbonise the building stock.” The Commission explains that: “The renovation wave will address current low decarbonisation and renovation rates of around 1% across the EU and tackle the underlying barriers for improving the energy efficiency of the EU building stock. Currently, roughly 75% of the building stock is energy inefficient, yet almost 80% of today’s buildings will still be in use in 2050.”

It is a laudable ambition. But look a little closer.

The EC says 75% of the building stock is energy inefficient; the Buildings Performance Institute Europe says 97% of our building stock needs to be renovated by 2050. Let’s not quibble. An incredible number of buildings are energy inefficient, requiring a robust effort of renovation. It is widely agreed that at least 3% of the building stock must be renovated annually in order to meet carbon reduction goals

The Commission says that 1% of the building stock is currently being renovated annually. But in its recent report, RAP says that only 0.2 to 0.3% of buildings are undergoing deep renovation each year. By RAP’s estimate, the goal to renovate 3% of building stock per year would mean that the current rate of renovation needs to be increased by 10 to 15 times.

The RAP report calculates the average renovation brings energy savings in the range of 9-17%. That is the kind of saving that could be expected from installing a smart meter. That is simply not ambitious and will not get us to where we need to be in 2050, which would require around 80 percent savings per renovation. We certainly should not be subsidising such mediocre renovations.

We know how to achieve deep improvements. The technologies and techniques are there, and we know that even greater improvements are on the way. There is no reason why deep renovations, delivering much greater energy savings, cannot be implemented now.

But we also know that deep renovations are not enough. Our heating systems need to be decarbonised. That can mainly be achieved through the deployment of heat pumps and to a certain extent through district heating. The advantage of both heat pumps and DH is that they can also be used for cooling. As many parts of Europe experience hotter summers due to climate change, this can be an important adaptation measure. And obviously, decarbonised heating depends on a decarbonised electricity system.

Renovation will never be sufficient at the current rate of improvement. We are only actually achieving a fraction of the 1 % we tell ourselves we are renovating.  At this rate of mediocre improvement, a building will have to be renovated multiple times over its lifetime to 2050 to achieve decarbonisation goals. That will put even greater pressure to do more renovations – deep energy saving renovation – every year. Maybe we should stop using the word renovation and require the term ‘building energy intervention’.

The 2050 goal is a societal objective and must be met by societal support. That means societal financial support, better awareness creation and better capacity to do these interventions. Our buildings are our communal infrastructure. And that infrastructure has to address both climate mitigation and adaptation needs.

There is a short 30 years to reach our objectives and yet look at how little has been accomplished since the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Remember that, Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, recently argued that we only have six months to solve the climate crisis.

If we really only can squeeze out improvements in the range of 9 to 17% per building then maybe we have to simply admit that our long-term decarbonisation objectives have to be met by some other means. Even get the long-term renovation strategies from member states that were due in March have not been delivered.

Can we really have a deep energy performance improvement of 97% of our buildings by 2050? Or should we change our priorities?

One thought on “Is it time to change our priorities for mitigating GHG emissions from energy efficiency improvements?

  1. Pingback: New report from BPIE on progress by EU member states to provide their renovation strategies | Energy in Demand - Sustainable Energy - Rod Janssen

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