How greener homes will help reduce carbon emissions in Europe

Houses with solar panels on the roofs in Juehnde, Germany. (Keystone/AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of Europe’s energy consumption and more than a third  of its total greenhouse gas emissions. This means that revamping homes to be more sustainable plays a key role, not only in addressing the climate emergency but also in tackling energy poverty.

The growing impact of climate change on the future of housebuilding is the focus of #Housing 2030, a joint initiative of housing experts from 56 countries that aims to promote sustainable and affordable housing, and which met online this week.

Organised by UN Habitat and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in Geneva, the #Housing2030 conference was originally due to take place in Glasgow to coincide with the COP26, which has been rescheduled to take place in 2021.

In her opening remarks, Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council stressed the importance of delivering on climate and social justice:

“In 2020, around one third of our citizens still live with fuel and energy poverty. That has a damaging effect on their health, on their quality of life and on the financial sustainability of individuals’ households and indeed entire communities.”

Why it is significant. After the 2008 financial meltdown, millions of people lost their homes or were left with serious debt, deepening the housing crisis across regions. This gave way in 2015 to the adoption of UNECE’s Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing, a set of principles and guidelines intended to support Member States of the ECE region (Europe, North America, Central and Western Asia) in ensuring access to adequate, affordable and healthy housing.

As part of its efforts to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the EU has decided to make energy efficiency one of the cornerstones of its Green Deal, making housing a crucial component of its plan through its recently announced initiative to refurbish 35 million buildings, public and private, in the next ten years.

This will allow them to tackle several issues:

  • Affordability: With gentrification and skyrocketing rents, low- and moderate-income families are struggling to pay their bills. Old energy technologies as well as poor insulation tend to drive-up the cost of energy.

  • Sustainability: Homes are major contributors to carbon emissions. By improving buildings’ energy efficiency, the EU expects to reduce buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent compared to 2015.

  • Economic opportunity: The renovation wave initiative will create up to 160,000 additional green jobs in the construction sector.

Improving energy efficiency. There are several ways to upgrade a building in order to reduce its carbon emissions as well as the cost of energy consumption:

  • Insulating the walls, the roof and the floor so that less heating or cooling energy is needed.

  • Replacing natural gas and fossil-fuel energy systems with clean energy sources such as solar panels.

  • Using more energy efficient technology for lights and electric appliances such as LED-light bulbs.

The key challenge. With 87 million Europeans living in poor quality dwellings and 54 million not being able to heat their homes adequately, the EU faces enormous challenges ahead. Most buildings in Europe are more than 50 years old, meaning that they were built before minimum energy efficiency standards were implemented. They represent the biggest part in energy consumption.

Currently, 75 per cent  of Europe’s buildings are inefficient and only one per cent undergoes energy-efficiency-related renovations every year. To reach its target, Europe intends to revamp twice as many buildings in the next decade, requiring around €275bn additional investment in building renovation every year.

No “one-size fits all” solution. The issue of housing needs more than one approach, said Gulnara Roll, UNECE’s secretary to the committee on urban development, housing and land management. “Housing and land are ancient issues for our societies that have developed in very specific socio-economic contexts. The Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing proposes to look at it from an integrative approach, taking into account the social, environmental, economic but also cultural dimension," Roll said.

For instance, housing tenure is not the same everywhere in Europe. In Eastern countries, tenants usually own their apartments. Massive privatisation in the 1990s in Slovakia has left only three to four per cent  of buildings in public hands, highlighted Peter Gergely from the Slovakian Ministry of Transport and Construction.

Thus, non-state actors play a key role. The Association of Flemish Social Housing Companies (VVH) is leading the Aster project which aims to tackle poverty by retrofitting social housing with solar panels and socialising the returns on investment through lower energy bills. It is financed through loans from private investment banks as well as public subsidies. A part of the money that tenants save is in turn used to finance the investment on solar panels.

Björn Mallants from VVH stated:

“Within three years, we expect to provide 90,000 families with clean energy, which accounts for two thirds of Flanders’s social housing. In terms of decarbonising, it will have the same effect as planting 1.5 million trees.”

In the Basque Country, district-based one-stop-shops have been set to empower homeowners and communities and accompany them by providing technical, legal and financing advice. “Our aim is to build trust,” said Andoni Hildalgo from Opengela as he presented the project.

The initiatives shared during the #Housing2030 event will contribute to a report which will be published at the end of next year. It will provide a ‘tool kit’ containing a range of policies and initiatives for sustainable housing based on good practices.