As new Members of the European Parliament take their places and the European Green Deal — as promised by new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — takes shape, it bears repeating that the state of EU buildings holds the potential to make or break whatever energy, emissions and environmental targets are set in the coming months.
A growing body of research attaches figures to the value of benefits that energy efficiency measures deliver to public agencies, private entities, economies as a whole, and to individual citizens. Renovating private homes has a benefit-cost ratio of 4:1, reflecting reductions in healthcare expenditure, elimination of energy subsidy pay-outs, job creation and greater economic empowerment of citizens who are lifted out of energy poverty.
Renovate Europe is pleased to see that buildings are included in early discussion of the European Green Deal. Yet to date, policy action in this area has failed to stimulate the level of deep energy renovation needed.
Across the EU, people spend approximately 90% of their time indoors. Temperature, lighting, humidity, draughts and noise play important roles in physical and mental well-being. More efficient buildings improve thermal comfort for lower volumes of energy consumption, reducing emissions and leading to better air quality indoors and outdoors.
People with low incomes live in poorer quality dwellings which require high energy consumption to achieve thermal comfort — whether that means staying warm in winter or maintaining a healthy indoor temperature in summer. Often, the associated costs drive them into energy poverty. Recent estimates put the number of EU citizens affected at 41 million in winter and 98 million in summer. Renovating such homes would obviously reduce demand and lower energy bills, lifting people out of energy poverty.
Public budgets could also realise substantial benefits through reduced healthcare costs. Research from the UK shows that of all household risks that carry costs for the National Health Service, being cold at home is four times more costly than the next-highest risk of falls on stairs. Across the EU, approximately 250,000 excess/early deaths are recorded each winter (compared with summer mortality rates); about one-third of these – 80,000 deaths – are associated with poor-quality housing and inability to keep adequately warm.
A recent study by the Buildings Performance Institute of Europe (BPIE, 2019) found that deep energy renovations deliver specific benefits across different building types:
- In hospitals: Directly related to the health costs associated with energy poverty in homes is the question of energy efficiency in hospitals, where a healthy interior can make the difference between life and death. Good ventilation reduces the risk of cross-infection, while daylighting, thermal comfort and good soundproofing accelerate patient recovery times.
- Public and private workspaces: Around 36% of the EU workforce, 81 million people, spend eight hours a day or more working in offices, where about 90% of operating costs are linked to employees. Renovating for comfortable, healthy, well-lit and thoughtfully designed workspaces improves staff morale and reduces turnover. It can also boost employee productivity by up to 12%.
- In schools: Modelling carried out by the BPIE estimates that school renovations could allow children to improve academic performance by 3%-8% — equivalent to ten fewer school days a year.
Across all building types, scaling up renovation to the level needed to achieve an 80% reduction in energy waste has the potential to create 2 million local jobs. In many cases, this will require building skills capacity in low-income areas, with the added benefit of boosting local economies.
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