Year after year, the number of fatalities related to weather conditions increases in Europe. Extreme weather events, such as deadly summer heat waves and flash floods, are becoming more frequent as the new climate reality takes hold. Furthermore, rising living costs, compounded by volatile energy prices, forced many households last year to choose between heating or eating, meaning many more would fall into energy poverty. Among the main causes is Europe’s inefficient building stock, as well as a heavy dependence on fossil fuels.
Spain is among the most affected countries. Without going any further, last year, this country recorded 11,324 deaths attributable to extreme heat, the second worst figure in Europe (Italy was the worst with 18,010 deaths). We have just suffered the third heat wave, surpassing record temperatures day after day.
In these circumstances, the main recommendation is to stay indoors, in addition to constantly hydrating, although the problem is that many Spanish households have difficulties keeping their homes at an adequate temperature due to the characteristics of our buildings and cities. As extreme heat waves become more frequent, energy poverty goes beyond the cold in winter and now poses serious health risks in summer, as adequate air conditioning and ventilation become less affordable.
Unfortunately, 80% of Spanish buildings are inefficient from an energy point of view, 5% more than the total number of inefficient buildings in the EU. The National Plan against Energy Poverty found that it is especially households with lower incomes and homes occupied by the most vulnerable people in Spain that suffer from this energy inefficiency.
On the other hand, figures published by Eurostat indicate that almost 8 million people in Spain were unable to keep their homes at an adequate temperature last winter. In the last three years, the percentage of households that were unable to enjoy thermal comfort in their homes increased from 10.9% to 17.1%, largely due to inflation and the current increase in the cost of living.
Despite millions of people living in inadequate housing, for decades there has been virtually no effort to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious housing improvement policies in the EU. Households are forced to rely on outdated, inefficient and polluting heating systems that run on fossil fuels, leaving many exposed to volatile energy prices. For its part, the poor quality of the homes in terms of insulation and ventilation makes it difficult to take shelter in summer, without using expensive cooling systems, in the best of cases. The continued use of fossil fuels also exacerbates the climate crisis, which is the main culprit behind these deadly summer heat waves.
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To address these issues, the review of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is a crucial starting point. The Directive can be the catalyst for EU Member States, such as Spain, to take urgent measures to decarbonise their buildings, increase their renovation rate and ensure the replacement of fossil fuel-based heating systems with solutions renewable as soon as possible.
Heating and air conditioning are one of the largest expenses in the budget of many homes. Hence, adequate and sufficient national and EU funds must be allocated, prioritizing the renovation of the worst performing homes and inhabited by families with the lowest incomes. Subsidies for fossil fuel heating installations should be eliminated by 2024 at the latest, as they only perpetuate the fossil fuel machinery, hampering the transition to sustainable and renewable-based systems.
Currently, there are approximately 68 million gas boilers and 18 million oil boilers in residential buildings in the EU. Replacing 30 million gas and diesel boilers with new heat pumps between now and 2030 would mean a 36% reduction in gas and diesel consumption in these buildings and a 28% reduction in their CO₂ emissions. To achieve this, public funding should be redirected from fossil fuels towards improving energy efficiency, renovating buildings and homes and installing renewable heating and cooling technologies in the residential sector.
Better buildings today for better lives tomorrow
Reducing energy consumption and costs, achieving healthier and more comfortable homes and drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions are the benefits that a profound wave of comprehensive renovation can bring in all EU Member States. These are long-term solutions to many of the current crises facing Europe.
The renovation of Spanish buildings, especially homes, will require efforts from both the private and public sectors. Governments and the private sector must join forces to increase the recruitment and training of specialized professionals to carry out these widespread renovations, ensure good working conditions, decent and direct employment opportunities, improve qualification requirements and implement Large-scale educational initiatives are underway to ensure a sufficient supply of appropriately qualified and certified workers who can perform high-quality work. It is also the responsibility of governments to set ambitious and clear policy objectives in their National Energy and Climate Plans (NECP).
Meanwhile, the three-way debates between the EU institutions continue, with us now in the final phase of the review of the buildings directive. It is time for national and EU policymakers to recognize the potential of a deep wave of holistic renewal to address the multiple crises facing Europe today. It is in your hands to offer a legislative framework that gives priority to people, to buildings in the worst condition and that includes financial support, technical help and solid social protection. We definitely need a building directive, socially and environmentally fair.
Authors: Mónica Vidal Sánchez, expert in Renewable Heating at CAN Europe. Andrea Jarabo Torrijos, Head of Communication and Advocacy at Provivienda.
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