Buildings are homes, work places, schools, hospitals, shops, sports halls, transport terminals, where we all spend a significant part of our day. Their construction, maintenance and demolition present many challenges and some opportunities for climate change and the environment.

Buildings and construction are closely linked to the economy, local employment and quality of life. Europe has many old cities with old buildings. Its building stock is also getting older and many old buildings are not built for efficient use of energy or a warmer climate. 

Buildings must be made to protect people from the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and cold spells, both of which entail higher energy consumption for heating or cooling. Energy inefficiency, energy poverty or the poor condition of buildings often affect some groups and communities more than others.

Almost 75% of the building stock is currently energy inefficient and more than 85% of today's buildings are likely to still be in use in 2050. Energy renovation of buildings is ongoing but at a very slow rate.

The EU's renovation wave will play a key role in massively upgrading existing buildings in Europe. It will help make them more energy efficient and adapted to climate change. This will be an important element in achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050.

Energy efficiency and climate adaptation are only part of the story. Construction and renovation require resources, demolition generates construction waste. Already around half of the world’s resource extraction is used for buildings and construction.

Many EU countries are using recovered construction and demolition materials to a great extent but are usually downcycling waste materials. Past building practices and lack of homogenous waste materials result in waste that is not suitable for reuse or recycling. The challenge remains: our building needs to be energy-efficient — not only for heating but also for cooling; and our construction sector needs to much more circular.

Europe has an ageing building stock affecting the health and well-being of many people. Around 15% of Europeans live in dwellings with a leaky roof or damp walls, floors or foundations — and up to 39% live in buildings with rot in the window frames or floors.

All buildings need to be renovated regularly to address comfort, safety or maintenance issues, and energy and other renovations often occur together.

Between 2005 and 2020, existing policies and warmer winters contributed to a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions from buildings during their use phase. But with building use accounting for 40% of annual EU energy consumption and 36% of annual EU greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector, improving buildings’ sustainability plays a critical role in meeting EU climate change mitigation targets.

By avoiding or delaying the use of new materials in buildings, circular economy-based approaches to renovation can help to reduce embedded greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that 20-25% of the life cycle emissions of the current EU building stock are embedded in building materials.

To achieve the EU’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, new buildings need to be carbon-neutral and, more importantly, existing buildings need to be upgraded. The construction industry will have to have an unprecedented acceleration in energy renovation of EU buildings to make this happen.

Increasing building circularity can help minimise environmental impacts and mitigate climate change through initiatives like:

  • Extending product lifetimes, reducing demolition and avoiding new construction;
  • Reducing material losses;
  • Recirculating materials and products, avoiding extraction of new materials;
  • Preventing downcycling;
  • Substituting greenhouse gas-intensive materials with lower emission products.

The global picture is important, too. Buildings must be made to protect people from the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and low energy use.

The EU's renovation wave aims to at least double the annual energy renovation rate (currently estimated at 1%) of residential and non-residential buildings by 2030 and initiate energy renovations that could reduce building energy consumption by at least 60%.

The Energy Efficiency Directive, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and their respective 2021 recasts set out clear frameworks to achieve this, while the European Commission works to promote climate change adaptation in building standards.

The need to move beyond the greenhouse gas emissions generated from the use of buildings and to adopt a life cycle perspective, in which emissions embedded in construction materials are addressed, is increasingly being recognised by construction sector stakeholders (World Green Building Council, 2022).

Knowledge of buildings’ life cycle greenhouse gas emissions is therefore important from both policy and industry perspectives.

EEA briefing, 2022

Cooling your home during a heatwave?

Across Europe, rising temperatures, combined with an ageing population and urbanisation, mean that the population is becoming more vulnerable to heat and that demand for cooling in buildings is rising rapidly. Buildings, as long-lasting structures, can offer protection from heatwaves and high temperatures if appropriately designed, constructed, renovated and maintained. 

The summer of 2022, with its successive long heatwaves and high energy prices, may have raised the sense of urgency given to the alleviation of heat stress. Our briefing examines key elements of sustainable cooling policy, and its potential impacts on vulnerable groups, by reducing health risks, inequalities and summer energy poverty.

Picture of a double heat pump on legs, between two tree plants in rusted pots in a yard with an orange wall as background.
EGMS buildings and construction

How is Copernicus helping?

The Copernicus Land Monitoring Service offers users several products with detailed information on urban areas. High resolution imperviousness datasets reveal areas where the soil is sealed at the continental scale, including both natural and artificial surfaces. The Urban Atlas gives users access to detailed land cover and land use maps for 788 Functional Urban Areas across Europe, with additional street tree maps, building block height measurements, and population estimates.

The European Ground Motion Service product uses radar data derived from Sentinel-1 to detect and measure ground movements across Europe with milimetre precision. With this information, urban planners can make data-driven decisions about where to build new infrastructure by assessing the likelihood of natural hazards such as landslides or subsidence.

How can we improve building construction?

Three circularity objectives can be addressed through circular renovation actions:

Alt text: Infographic on three circularity objectives to improve building construction. Long description: The infographic depicts three circularity objectives to improve building construction that can be addressed through circular renovation actions. There are three simplified icons with text underneath arranged from left to right, each representing one of the three objectives. The leftmost icon shows a high-rise building next to an analogue clock. The text underneath reads: “Increasing life spans, thus delaying the need for new construction and reducing the corresponding demand for new materials or increasing the use intensity of buildings.” The middle icon shows six empty squares arranged in three rows of two; the borders of the two squares in the top row are dotted while the borders of the other four squares are solid. Next to this are two arrows arranged in a circle, each pointing at the end of the other. The text below reads: ”Reducing the need for material consumption by using resources more efficiently.” The third icon shows several connected hexagons, reminiscent of the comb in a beehive next to a large sheet of drafting paper with a drafting compass hovering above. The text below reads: “Making use of new generation materials with high circular potential.”

Improving circularity of construction and demolition waste

Alt text: Infographic on ways to improve the circularity of construction and demolition waste, focusing on raw materials, end-of-life, design, use and construction. Long description: The infographic features ways to improve the circularity of construction and demolition waste in the EU. The infographic is divided into five sectors, each featuring the pros and cons of the proposed methods. Each sector has an associated 3 dimensional icon; generic blocks and pipes for Raw Materials, a person working on a computer for Design, a truck with an open top trailer containing construction materials for Construction, a construction worker speaking to a man in a suit with a briefcase for Use, and a recycling plant for End-of-Life. The text associated with the Raw Materials section reads: Bold headline, “High-grade products with high-recycled content.” Subtext below, “materials with high durability used in structural elements.” Below that, a list of pros and cons. Pros read, “prolong construction’s lifespan, thus contribute to waste prevention,” and, “creates demand for recycled materials in closed loops, increases quality of recycling.” Cons read, “low cost of virgin materials versus high cost of waste processing,” and, “doubts on quality of recyclables, lack of standards.”  The text associated with the Design sector reads: Bold headline, “Design for disassembly.” Subtext below, “Design construction products so that they are easy to separate into components that can be reused, reassembled, reconfigured, and recycled.” Below that, a list of pros and cons. Pros read, “Re-use is part of waste prevention, separation of components makes recycling easier.” Cons read, “Higher complexity of disassembly,” and, “Potential conflict with other legislation such as energy efficiency,” and, “Lack of knowledge and information,” and, “Very long time delay between implementation and results.” The text associated with the Construction sector reads: Bold headline, “Materials passports.” Subtext below, “Sets of data describing defined characteristics of materials and components in building products.” Below that, a list of pros and cons. Pros read, “Facilitates source separation of end-of-life materials, increases recycling quality and closed loops.” Cons read, “Information and data management for long time periods,” and, “Costs of data gathering and storage.” The text associated with the Use sector reads: Bold headline, “Extension of construction service life.” Subtext below, “renovate, improve maintenance, upgrade, repair and adapt constructions.” Below that, a list of pros and cons. Pros read, “Implementation of waste prevention,” and, “Avoidance of new construction and related environmental impacts.” Cons read, “Energy inefficient buildings also extend their lifespan,” and, “Risks for the presence of inferior materials in buildings and degradation of structural building elements,” and, “high labor costs,” and, “changes in architectural preference.” The text associated with the End-of-Life sector reads: Bold headline, “Selective demolition.” Subtext below, “remove hazardous materials and increase source separation into high value, pure material fractions.” Below that, a list of pros and cons. Pros read, “Increase quantity and quality of recycling.” Cons read, “More time consuming and potentially more costly demolition,” and, “Lack of traceability (limited information on waste material origin and quality),” and, “Complexity of buildings and construction materials.”

Source: EEA briefing, 2020

More information