Energy Efficiency Carbon Mitigation Potential in the EU

Energy Efficiency[1]


While Europe’s compact city design bodes well for transportation emissions mitigation, the aging buildings that comprise these cities poses a completely different set of challenges.  The buildings of the EU are responsible for 1.5 GtCO2e/year. This comes to 16% of global emissions in this sector and 3% of global GHG emissions across all sectors. In total, the building sector offers a 2030 emissions abatement potential of 3.0 GtCO2e. The E.U. can provide 15%. The makes Energy Efficiency the third largest potential sector for emissions reduction in the EU.


EU Policy & Building Codes

The EU member states have mandatory Building Energy Codes (BECs) that apply to their entire building stock (Ibid). This is the most unique aspect of the EU’s codes, that there are no exemptions from them. In an attempt to find “low hanging fruit”, the BEC offers several creative financing mechanisms to improve on building efficiency. Low hanging fruit is a term “used to designate energy efficiency measures that are the most cost‐effective, least invasive and that tend to have quick payback periods and yield energy savings of up to 20‐25% in some cases. This can include measures such as operation and maintenance, behavior change, and lighting upgrades.” (European Commission, 2013)



The average age for most types of buildings in the EU are much older than developing countries. For example, the average age of chemical plants in Europe and North America are more than 20 years, compared to just 10 years in China, with Middle Eastern and African plants ranging in between the numbers (Energy Technology Transitions for Industry). On the other hand, many of the buildings that will be operating in 2050 in regions such as the U.S. and E.U. have already been constructed, meaning that retrofits could be a more viable option for potential emissions reductions (Buildings and Climate Change: Summary for Decision Makers, 2009).



As opposed to rapidly developing China and India, there is less retired steel than in the United States and Europe, which have older infrastructures. Thus, relative gains from steel recycling are higher in the latter than the former. This recycling could prove to be a large boon to emissions reduction in the EU, as many of its first generation steel buildings are reaching the end of the operational lives. Many of the EU’s buildings are not steel based, so this will not produce the same dramatic potential that would be available in the US. Despite many of the older pre-steel buildings, this provides a chance for the EU to create at least some new energy efficient buildings.

There are also potential fringe benefits from fuel switching for the Energy Efficiency sector. In addition to switching to cleaner natural gas, biofuels can be easily adapted for cement production. Biofuel options include waste tires, plastics, chemical waste, waste pellets, wood waste, and sewage sludge.  Currently, cement producers in Europe have been able to achieve substitution rates between 7% and 43% from these alternative fuels (Energy Technology Transitions for Industry). If these practices can be standardized, this would allow for much less carbon intensive construction methods to be employed in Europe.


Many of the barriers in the Energy Efficiency sector in the EU are physical in nature. While there is great potential for retrofitting old buildings in Europe, these buildings will never be as efficient as newly constructed buildings that use new materials and construction methods. In order to protect many older historical structures, EU cities have allowed for the existence of “grandfather” clauses that exempt historical buildings from new building codes. Closing this gap could prove to be a boon for energy efficiency in city centers, but it will also meet great resistance from city residents and governments.

Additionally, biofuels are becoming increasingly important in EU building construction, but these alternatives are also increasingly controversial. Research has called into question whether many biofuels are actually “greener” due to the land use demands that they place. This debate will most likely rage in the EU for some time, at least until the mitigation potential behind biofuels becomes clearer.

[1] The following is built from excerpts from the Energy Efficiency Report of the Climate Change Research Group.

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