by Frederic Simon
“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett’s mantra sounds like a perfect fit for the European Union’s latest attempt to revamp its green buildings law.
With the Green Deal launched in 2020 and the energy crisis hitting Europeans directly at the wallet, political momentum appeared to build up in favour of an ambitious revision of the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD).
After all, reducing energy consumption became an urgent priority in order to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian gas, which feeds into the millions of boilers currently installed in European homes.
“Faced with war, with a fossil fuel crisis, the arguments in favour of the Renovation Wave have only become more pressing,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission.
“Investing in renovation is a no regret option,” she told delegates at last year’s Renovate Europe Day.
At the centre of the revised EPBD is the introduction of minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) that would trigger the renovation of the worst-performing buildings.
“MEPS are the backbone of this legislation. They define a clear trajectory for improving individual buildings which will support more renovations and mobilise the market towards our decarbonisation goal,” explained Ciaran Cuffe, the Irish lawmaker driving the reform in the European Parliament.
But while there is a large consensus to raise ambition on energy efficiency, translating this into EU law is a different matter, where national divergences quickly come into play.
When the Council of the EU voted its position in October, EU member states almost neutered the mandatory renovation principle, in spite of resistance from a seven-country coalition led by Germany, France, and Denmark.
Now, it’s the European Parliament having a go at the proposal, with far-right and conservative parties banding together to water down the EPBD.
Their arguments are broadly similar: with its mandatory renovation targets, the EPBD risks making housing unaffordable to tenants and homeowners who are already struggling with rising energy bills. The law, they argue, also ignores the particularities of historical buildings, which require special attention.
Rome has led the rebellion, with far-right minister Matteo Salvini saying his government “will oppose it, in the name of common sense and realism, as a government but above all as Italians”.
Parliament eventually foiled attempts to torpedo the EPBD when the directive came to a plenary vote on Tuesday (14 March). But this may have been down to luck, as rebel lawmakers from the conservative EPP group, the nationalist ECR and the far-right ID group apparently mistakenly voted to reject the amendments they intended to support (or the other way round, actually).
To be sure, it’s only a question of time before Italy, Poland and others reiterate their demands when the directive enters final negotiations between Parliament and EU member states in the coming months.
“With the current text, we could envisage the substantial inapplicability of the directive,” Italy’s Energy Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin warned after the Parliament vote, saying this could cause the EU’s wider “green objective to fail”.
Under attack from all sides, it seems inevitable that the EPBD will be diluted again – and it won’t be the first time.
In 2010, when EU countries agreed a revision of the EPBD, EU countries pushed back vigorously against attempts to impose mandatory renovation thresholds on member states.
Brook Riley, a lobbyist at insulation manufacturer Rockwool, was a green activist back in 2010. He remembers the widespread scepticism back then over a proposal to mandate all new buildings to be nearly zero energy.
“The deadline was ten years away – 2021 – but the naysayers had a field day,” he recalled.
The scepticism was later reflected in the subsequent revision of the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) in 2012, which restricted mandatory renovation targets for public buildings to those that are “owned and occupied” by the central government – a definition which severely restricted its scope.
“The central government authorities-only line was quite something,” Riley said. The limitation meant that “less than 0.4% of the overall stock was covered” in the end, he told EURACTIV.
Yet, there are reasons to hope that some mistakes won’t be repeated this time around.
When the EPBD was last updated in 2017, EU countries agreed a 2050 objective to decarbonise the Union’s entire building stock, including long-term renovation strategies and national plans with milestones for 2030 and 2040.
Last week, EU legislators agreed a new revision of the Energy Efficiency Directive. For the first time, they introduced a legally-binding obligation on EU member states to collectively achieve an 11.7% reduction in energy consumption by 2030 compared to 2020 projections.
Although efficiency campaigners had hoped for more ambition, they nevertheless welcomed the deal on the EED, saying it “represents an improvement” over the last version, agreed in 2018 after significant concessions were made to EU member states.
“For the first time, the Europe Union sets itself a binding energy efficiency target and a mechanism to enforce it,” said Adrian Joyce, secretary general of EuroACE, a coalition bringing together leading companies involved in energy efficiency solutions for buildings.
“This addresses one of the main weaknesses of the previous Energy Efficiency Directive,” he said.
As often in the European Union, things eventually get to move forward. It only takes a little bit of perseverance. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” as Beckett would say.
*first published in: Euractiv.com