Energy Efficiency
Climate Change
Sustainability

COP26 - ‘To succeed on climate action we have to succeed on building renovation’

Deborah 'Debbie' Kelly Spillane
Debbie Spillane
20 December 2021
Cop26 campaign image

With the goal of highlighting the importance of energy efficient buildings for meeting global climate goals, Jens Birgersson and a team from ROCKWOOL were active at the recent COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. To gain insights into the event and assess what needs to be done better, we speak with two of our key players at the COP; Brook Riley, responsible for EU affairs at ROCKWOOL Group, and Ólöf Jónsdóttir, Head of Public Affairs for ROCKWOOL UK.

Why was it so important that ROCKWOOL attended COP26 in your opinion?

Brook: This was COP26, meaning that the climate talks have been building up for the past 26 years, but so far failing to lead to significant results. The primary aim of the Paris climate agreement is to limit temperature increases to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels[1]. Although more and more countries are committing to climate neutrality, the stark reality is that greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing. In fact, GHG concentrations reached a record high last year[2]. So the pledges made since Paris just don’t add up. Being present at COP26 was really important for ROCKWOOL because buildings account for 28 percent of these global emissions – 36 percent[3] of the GHG emissions in the EU; 40 percent in the United States; and 42 percent in the UK. The clear feeling at ROCKWOOL is that we need ensure that emissions start to go downwards in the building sector. That’s where we can play an effective role in offering solutions and bringing about results. This was our main thinking when prioritising COP26 this year.

Ólöf: There are so many different things that we have to tackle in order to get to the right place in the battle against climate change and they all compete for attention at COP. So if we don’t play our part in driving the piece of the puzzle that we have solutions for, it can easily fall off the priority list. In the run up to COP, we did a lot of work both directly and through our networks to ensure that building efficiency was on the agenda and that there was a specific day at COP dedicated to the built environment. It’s also just important to be present – both symbolically and in terms of the discussion – to actively bring it to life. As one of the big five year COPs, and with climate change really coming to the fore during the pandemic, this was a particularly important one to be present at.

How did the day dedicated to the built environment come about?

Ólöf: It came about thanks to a push from a number of networks that we’re involved in, with the UK Green Building Council in particular spearheading a campaign to secure this. When the UK presidency set out the priorities for COP, there was space where we could highlight our issues, but there certainly wasn’t a dedicated focus on the built environment. It took a lot of effort behind the scenes to highlight that buildings are a really important part of the puzzle and that we can’t solve climate change without addressing building efficiency.

It seems so obvious that  we need to step up and take action to upgrade our buildings. What is taking the focus away from this?

Brook: I believe it was TS Elliot who said, “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow,” – which is very appropriate for this situation. The issue is basically a delivery challenge. It’s one thing to make a commitment for several decades in the future about achieving climate neutrality, and it’s another to actually put the short-term measures in place to get us collectively on track to deliver those results. Inversing the emission trends seems to be the sticking point for many global leaders and for the policy makers who are working with them. Let’s take the EU as an example. There has been commitment for the past three years to achieve climate neutrality and the 2030 climate goals have been revised significantly to be much more ambitious. So the next steps are obvious but complex from a logistic perspective. There’s a need to:

  • identify the workforce capacity requirements,
  • design policies to attract and train more installers,
  • educate the people working in the regions and cities whose job it is to support homeowners and help them understand the subsidies that are available, and explain how they can apply for and how to find qualified workers to design and execute their renovation projects, etc.

Even when you have the strong political commitment to get results as we do in the EU, you still need to identify and tackle the administrative delivery challenge. If you look to other regions such as the US, there is still not an awareness about the need for building renovation yet. There’s a strong focus on supply-side solutions – on cleaning the energy supply. But if we want to build up and sustain public support for climate action over the next decade, people really need to feel the benefits of climate action in their pockets – and there is no better way to do this than with properly renovated, cheap-to-run, healthy homes. In the US, this debate is still at an early stage and the case for action still needs to be won. There are of course cities and states within the US that are considerably further ahead than others; California, Boston, New York to name a few. So it’s about ensuring that it’s not just a pilot project here and there but a united national effort. And that’s where we still need to do a lot more work and where we can provide a lot of input.

 

Ólöf: As we mentioned before, there is so much that needs to be achieved and in a very short timeframe. This leads to a bandwidth issue and the challenge is that political commitments to renovation – and climate action in general – are currently outstripping governments’ capacity to deliver their goals. It’s a complex area that requires an effective and detailed delivery plan to make it happen - big policy ideas and money aren’t enough by themselves.

The new report from Cambridge Econometrics[4] was launched during the COP. Did anything from the report surprise you?  

Brook: The report itself isn’t surprising. It’s full of solid recommendations which can form a blueprint for successful renovation schemes. Covering the US, UK and EU, it gives an overview of what’s happening in different markets and different regions and seeks to explain how to unlock the benefits of renovation. Money is not the problem. While there will always be a debate about the costs of climate action – and hopefully also about the costs of inaction – the fact is that there is plenty of money available for building renovations and other green investments. The issue concerns connecting the funding sources with the on-the-ground projects.

The report urges policymakers and industry players to develop the long-term renovation programmes where manufacturers need to plan production capacity and properly train more installers; team up with banks to combine public grants and low-interest loans; and set up more ‘one stop shops’ to help households apply for subsidies and find qualified workers. Take Italy for example, where there is an excellent subsidy scheme. If people undertake to renovate their homes and improve the energy performance of their buildings by at least two energy classes, they get a very attractive tax credit. There are similar stories in other countries. The key to success is properly combining the financial incentive with workforce training, local administrative support and clear long-term policy signals from the government. None of these measures are particularly headline-grabbing, but they can be game-changing if they are scaled up. 

I think what did surprise us, in a very positive way, was the polling which we carried out in conjunction with the report. The poll covered Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with over 14,000 respondents. We saw overwhelming support and a very high level appetite for renovation, with 79 percent of respondents saying they would renovate their homes if they had the means to. Diving deeper into the details, 73 percent would support mandatory energy performance standards, given the right enabling conditions. So it really showed that the demand is there but we need more ambitious legislation as well as a major focus on simplifying access to finance, increasing workforce capacity and project management support. We know that there is no quick fix. But leaders do have the power to put in place lasting renovation solutions to cut consumer bills and deliver on climate commitments.

Ólöf: We conducted the poll before the winter and before the energy price crisis began. It would be interesting to take the temperature again when people have had to deal with their winter energy bills, as I suspect those results would be even stronger. The latest official estimates are that 96.5m people in the EU are at risk of poverty[5], and rising gas prices are worsening an already alarming situation.

In the United States, the Energy Information Administration estimates that heating costs this winter could increase by an average of 30 percent compared to last year[6]. These costs will be especially harsh for the estimated one-third of American households who are currently struggling to afford their energy bills. In addition, there is clear evidence that people in energy poverty are at increased risk of suffering adverse mental and physical health consequences[7].

The dilemma is that even as financial compensation for high gas prices seems necessary this winter, longer-term compensation will have the effect of subsidising fossil fuel use and driving people deeper into energy poverty. But building renovation can literally insulate people from high energy prices.

Were the attendees at COP26 interested in any of the other benefits that renovation can offer aside from slashing GHG emissions?

Brook: I think the moderator for the New York Times Climate Hub session expressed it very well when he explained his initial surprise at how active and engaged the audience was. He said, ‘everybody lives somewhere – and this is something that impacts everyone.’ And this is true. It’s something that would concern you whether there is a climate emergency or not, because it’s all about securing better living conditions.

Ólöf: Not every insulation manufacturer talks about the added benefits as not every insulation manufacturer can deliver  more than thermal benefits. Part of the beauty of our material is that we can give so much more to buildings, and I think that people are becoming much more aware of that. In 2018, we were involved in a project in Portsmouth in an old 1960s social housing scheme that’s predominantly inhabited by elderly people but situated in a part of town that has a large student population. The whole retrofit was driven by a need to improve thermal performance – and this was certainly achieved as it now meets the retrofit equivalent of passive house. There were added benefits that are now highly valued, but they that weren’t considered during the planning of the project as the focus was so firmly on the thermal side. As they used stone wool throughout the renovation, the inhabitants now feel so much safer in their homes. Due to better acoustics, the residents no longer hear the noise of the students on their way home from socialising. This particular renovation started prior to the tragedy at Grenfell, but the event caused residents to wonder if their building was safe. As stone wool is non-combustible, they could of course be reassured. Buildings need to function on so many different levels, so we need to approach them holistically. Stone wool can help to deliver on so many of these fronts, offering so many benefits that people are not aware of until they actually experience them.

Looking back at COP 26, what were the key learnings that you took away – and is there anything you would do differently next time?

Brook: Speaking candidly, how good was the outcome from a climate point of view? Think how much debate there was just around the words, ‘phase out coal.’ No agreement was met in the end and they reached a compromise at ‘phase down coal.’ So we are seeing this gap between long-term pledges and short-term action. It’s worrying that countries which have committed to climate neutrality still find it difficult to agree on wording about coal in the shorter term. We need to recognise that there is a very real policy challenge between agreement on the long term and action in the short term. We need a short-term action plan; we need to define and carry out steps to deliver results between now and the next COP.

Ólöf: It’s fair to say that the COP wasn’t good enough in terms of climate action, but based on where we’ve been before, it was a step forward. The challenge is to secure enough focus on climate change because it’s too late. With the pandemic, we could all sense immediate danger and this resulted in governments all around the world spending the last 18 months acting to deal with threat of Covid 19. With climate change, we’ve always felt that the dangers are far enough into the future and that we still have time to address them. But scientific modelling makes it really clear that dramatic climate changes are inevitable if we don’t act now. Somehow, that pressure still isn’t being felt sufficiently by policy makers. Time is not on our side. So this is where we have a role to play; by making sure that this isn’t forgotten and doesn’t slip off the agenda. We have to make it as easy as possible to deliver; by giving policy makers the tools they need, the policy ideas, by sharing our understanding of the buildings and by showing them that the public appetite is there.   

 

[1] The parallel ‘well below 2°C’ goal is getting a lot less attention since the IPCC analysis showing the big increase in climate damages between 1.5°C and 2°C

[2] World Meteorological Organisation: Greenhouse Gas Bulletin: Another Year Another Record | World Meteorological Organization (wmo.int)

[3] GHG percentage numbers from the European Commission, U.S. Energy Information Administration, UK Green Building Council

[4] The Renovation Wave can cut EU gas imports and reduce consumer bills - Cambridge Econometrics (camecon.com)

[5] Eurostat : Living conditions in Europe - poverty and social exclusion - Statistics Explained (europa.eu)

[6] EIA forecasts U.S. winter natural gas bills will be 30% higher than last winter - Today in Energy - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)

[7] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-020-00763-9

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