By Despoina Antypa, Sustainability Specialist

As Europe targets to become climate neutral by 2050, efforts have been intensified during the last decade to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from different economic activities. In this challenge, the European Commission pays special attention to the building sector, as it accounts for 40% of energy consumption annually, along with 36% of associated emissions. The recently launched EC initiatives of “A Renovation Wave for Europe – Greening our buildings, creating jobs, improving lives” and the “New European Bauhaus” provide a perfect opportunity for all related public and private stakeholders to rethink their decarbonization approach.

Currently, a non-exhaustive list of energy efficiency measures for buildings is available, in order to improve the performance of the existing stock, including supportive policy frameworks, funding schemes and financial instruments, as well as commercial technology applications. The most widespread solutions refer to building envelope refurbishment, higher penetration of renewable energy sources for clean electricity production, diffusion of energy efficient electrical appliances and smart building energy management systems. So, by interventions like triple-glazed windows and solar panels on the roof, a building can drastically reduce its energy demands and even reach nearly zero emissions. Thus, building decarbonization seems to be an easy bet to win; or maybe not?

Let’s be honest; the renovation solutions available have been designed with focus on the operational energy of a building, meaning the energy used for space and water heating, space cooling, lighting and running of electrical appliances. But what about the energy and fossil fuels needed to produce the building materials of these solutions? How can a building lead the way to decarbonization when it is mainly made of concrete and glass?

This is where the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) concept enters the equation to answer to such questions, taking into account the hidden -or embodied- energy of a building, based on the whole lifecycle perspective. LCA is the factual analysis of a product or service in terms of environmental impacts during its entire life cycle (raw material extraction, transport needs, manufacturing, maintenance, demolition and possible recycling or reuse). Therefore, the LCA of buildings and their materials reveals the embodied carbon footprint that needs to be considered, apart from the operational carbon, in order to support responsible decision making towards real carbon neutrality.

In this context, IRES participates in the “iclimabuilt” European project under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, aiming to deploy efficient materials and technologies in the building sector, to support the real implementation of nearly zero emission buildings (NZEBs). After all, it is of crucial importance to follow a holistic approach regarding the environmental impacts of building materials, so as to support the market development for sustainable construction and renovation products and consequently to mitigate whole life carbon in the building sector.