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.

How is Copernicus helping?

Through the Urban Atlas, the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service provides information on built-up areas and building heights, which can help to map existing infrastructures.

Displacement of building structures and their surroundings due to terrain instability can be monitored with the European Ground Motion Service, which is also part of the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service.

The EEA provides the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service together with the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.

How can we improve building construction?

Three circularity objectives can be addressed through circular renovation actions:

Source: EEA briefing, 2022

Improving circularity of construction and demolition waste

Source: EEA briefing, 2020

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