Central and Eastern Europe urged to take the lead on Renovation Wave
Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a neat and effective way for Europe to meet both its geopolitical and domestic targets. As demonstrated at a high-level forum in Slovakia, Central and Eastern Europe has the potential to lead the fight against leaky infrastructure.
During the latest edition of the Central and Eastern European Energy Efficiency (C4E) Forum between 23 and 26 May, the future of Europe’s entire building sector was front and centre as delegates discussed how best to use renovations to tackle our geopolitical challenges.
The X-Bionic Hotel and conference centre in Šamorín, Slovakia, was the perfect venue for what was billed as “not your average conference”, as the sports and leisure complex is a fully-renovated former sanatorium.
A bona fide local success story that is home to the Slovakian Olympic team, the venue played host to three days of plenaries, seminars and informal chats, all aimed at solving some of the sector’s major problems and unlocking its full potential.
Following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine last year, energy security has rocketed up the political agendas of governments across Europe. Even though supply side measures have dominated policy responses, the debates at the C4E Forum demonstrated that it is now imperative to give priority to demand-side measures.
Given that buildings soak up 40% of energy demand and spew out more than a third of the EU’s emissions, improving their performance is seen as a win-win situation for climate, energy, foreign and social policy goals.
At the C4E meeting, Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová, patron of the event, weighed in with a video message to the attendees to outline how important her country considers improvements to the energy performance of buildings.
“In Slovakia, in the next few years, we will spend a huge amount of resources on rebuilding our economy and making it more resilient. The energy efficiency of our buildings is among our top priorities,”
the head of state added.
The topics and areas of discussions raised at the forum ranged from high-level geopolitical considerations such as how best to support Ukraine’s ongoing reconstruction efforts to practical know-how that authorities can use to better design and implement renovation programmes.
The latter includes best practices for upgrading multi-apartment buildings, which is of particular relevance for the CEE region, tips on how to use data to maximise renovation’s effectiveness and insights into how the labour market will have to evolve to meet new demand.
Talks also centred on how best to support Ukraine’s ongoing reconstruction efforts, by sharing best practices, know-how and standards, as well as securing financial aid. Industry representatives showed a particular willingness to do more to help the invaded country.
Getting the politics right
The European Union is currently updating the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) that governs much of what the sector is trying to achieve in the coming years.
Talks between the European Parliament, Council and Commission kicked off in June, shortly after the C4E Forum.
EU-wide elections in June 2024 and the Spanish government’s decision to trigger a snap election in July of this year, right at the start of the country’s chairing of the rotating EU presidency, mean the EPBD talks risk being dragged down by electioneering.
There is a lot of work to get through in the coming months in order to craft a compromise deal on the EPBD, including the requirement for zero-energy buildings (ZEBs); what buildings should be targeted by minimum energy performance standards (MEPS); and how to rescale energy performance certificates (EPCs).
At the C4E Forum, delegates from industry, civil society and academia urged policymakers to push for the maximum ambition possible when it comes to the EPBD reform and to do the same when it comes to implementing the rules.
“MEPS have the potential to be a game-changer if this instrument is properly implemented. What is important is how the worst performing buildings will be identified and what support will be available,”
said Jana Bendžalová, executive manager at ENBEE – Environment & Building Energy Efficiency.
Forum attendees also urged public authorities to defuse the risk that electioneering and politicking poses to renovation programmes by ensuring that schemes are long-lasting beyond government terms and that renewal decisions are made well ahead of final deadlines.
Looking after our heritage
One of the most prevalent myths linked to the EU’s Renovation Wave is linked to old heritage buildings and the supposed requirements that the EPBD will impose on those structures.
Heritage buildings can be exempted from renovation criteria and there are no obligations on either authorities or property owners to retrofit heritage-listed structures, contrary to some misreporting in the past that has even wrongly claimed they will have to be demolished.
Although there is no obligation, it does not mean that it is impossible to improve the energy performance of buildings from the past. A castle near the C4E Forum venue, in the town of Pezinok, is a testament to that.
Originally hailing from the 13th Century, the castle was rebuilt over the years and was eventually purchased by local winegrowers who added a winery and hotel to the complex. It has also undergone a recent renovation that means it is now an A-rated building.
The castle was the venue for the C4E Champion Award, an accolade granted to the Central and Eastern European public official that has made the most significant contribution to energy efficiency in buildings within their jurisdiction.
Jan Kříž, a deputy environment minister in the Czech government, was this year’s champion, impressing the judges with his long track record of overseeing large-scale renovation programmes and particular success in ensuring an even geographical spread of renovated buildings across his country.
“Making small innovations every year rather than deep changes is the reason behind the success of our programmes,”
the Czech official said during his video acceptance speech.
In the job since 2007, Kříž has been able to call on his vast experience when making key decisions on issues like the level of subsidy granted to projects, which has yielded impressive results. Officials in other countries have been urged to learn from his example.
Crucially, Kříž has acted as a constant contact point under successive ministers, ensuring stability for renovation programmes and preventing the issue from being over-politicised, which is one of the most damaging risks that such schemes can face.
Indeed, this was one of the main points that delegates took away from the forum; namely, that renovation schemes need time to be established and start working, meaning that they need to be designed to survive election cycles.
As Europe heads into a busy voting period, which is set to culminate in June 2024 with the EU elections, it is a mantra that is worth remembering.
Written by Sam Morgan, Brussels-based climate and energy journalist.
Sam is a veteran covering the EU institutions and writes extensively on European politics, climate, energy and more.
His work has been featured in international and national media outlets, in print magazines and on YouTube.
He also has experience moderating high-level events with senior politicians and public figures.
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