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Energy Performance of Buildings Directive -Embodied Carbon is key

The built environment is the single largest energy consumer in the EU. Buildings consume 40% of the EU’s energy and emit 36% of its greenhouse gases.

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Visitors admire the green wall and sustainable architecture at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Image via RENE SPITZ - Energy Performance of Buildings Directive
Visitors admire the green wall and sustainable architecture at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Image via RENE SPITZ – Energy Performance of Buildings Directive

The publication of the revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is around the corner. It constitutes a major piece of Fit for 55, an ambitious set of EU legislation proposed by the European Commission to deliver at least a 55% reduction of GHG by 2030. Yes, in just eight years. Why is the EPBD so pivotal to achieving the EU climate goals?  

Because there’s more to the story. The above figures consider the emissions generated through all the stages of a building’s life — from the manufacturing of construction materials such as cement, glass and steel, to the construction site itself, the building’s operation and up until demolition. Looking behind the scenes then, the scope of action drastically expands beyond the usual – and essential – focus on a more energy-efficient building stock.  

In 2020, the manufacturing of buildings construction materials accounted for 10% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. In Europe, half of the cement end up in the construction of new buildings. And close to 18% of industrial emissions in the EU are from the cement industry alone. 

So, what exactly needs to be addressed?

Picture a building’s life starting, just like ours, before it is ‘born’, in its production and construction phases. So do its CO2 emissions. That’s upfront carbon. As a full grown-up, it keeps emitting CO2 while consuming energy from fossil fuels, directly and indirectly. It’s precisely building’s operation emissions that have gathered the most policy attention so far. But that’s only half of the picture. Emissions from materials, demolition processes, transport and any other associated with buildings that are not from its operational energy use are “embodied emissions”. When you look at all these emissions together, that’s the whole-life carbon (WCL).

Now, say that our humanoid building, which is a typical office building for the sake of this demonstration, has just celebrated its 50th birthday. In that lifespan, only 50% of its total energy use was for its operation. The other half is “embodied energy”, which translates into embodied emissions, depending on how carbon-intensive this energy is.  

If addressing WCL is so critical, why hasn’t it been done already?

One explanation is the pursuit of “business as usual”. Energy-intensive materials and conventional, less energy-efficient design decisions are usually more familiar and cheaper options. Furthermore, it is technically difficult to calculate embodied carbon. There is no mandatory data disclosure required from manufacturers, no harmonised assessment approach, or standardised metrics. Finally, aside from a handful of experts, no one has arisen so far to champion the cause of WCL.

What are the good news?

The good news is that the upcoming Energy Performance of Buildings Directive revision can play a key role in unleashing the emission reduction potential of the buildings sector by tackling WCL. It can set minimum requirements on embodied emissions disclosure methods across the entire sector’s value chain, opening the stage to setting mandatory standards and benchmarks.

Clear criteria would create the market conditions for greener construction materials by stimulating demand. For instance, energy performance certificates would not only require that a building’s energy use meets minimum energy performance standards, but also check their embodied carbon. Another great news: there is now a policy instrument that makes it feasible to assess and report on WCL. The European Commission has developed the methodology Level(s) together with the sector and the EU Member States. It uses best-practice industry standards and has been thoroughly tested. 

A few countries have already adopted roadmaps for assessing and progressively reducing WCL. In France, the RE2020 will set increasingly stringent regulations starting in January 2022. At the same time, Sweden will introduce a mandatory ‘climate declaration’ for all new buildings, which will extend limit values to all life cycle stages. They propose that these declarations use Level(s) as a reporting framework.

The most immediate deadline for irreversible global warming is 2050, a moment that new constructions will outlast. If the EU is to achieve its net-zero emissions targets by then, decarbonisation of the buildings sector needs to become a priority now.

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