Governments could reduce gas imports from Russia by decarbonising buildings sector

Press release

The buildings sector is responsible for one fifth of global emissions, but governments are doing little to address them compared with other sectors, despite the necessary technologiesand successful policies beingtested already, saysa new report released by the Climate Action Tracker today.

Decarbonising buildings: achieving zero carbon heating and cooling looks at the key factors holding back emissions reductions in the buildings sector,proposes a broad set of actions thatgovernmentscan pursue, and highlightscase studies showing how progress can be made. The report comes as governments are moving to reduce gas imports from Russia in the face of Putin’s Ukraine invasion, with the European Commission yesterday announcing it would reduce its Russian gas imports by at least two thirdsthis year.

The direct, and indirect, use of gas, a fossil -not a bridging -fuel, is one of the key contributing factors behind buildings emissions, andneeds to be reducedby at least 65% by 2040. It’s also a fuel that’s becoming increasingly costly: in many countries natural gas prices are at record highs, leading to significantly higher costs for heating and cooling homes. This particularly affects low-income households, exacerbating energy poverty. And this issue has now become critical in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“This week, the European Commission has announced moves to reduce its reliance on Russian gas, including some of the actions we mention in this report, such as switching away from gas to heat pumps,” said Dr Louise Jeffery of NewClimate Institute, one of the two CAT consortium organisations.

“All of the actions proposed need to be stronger, and faster, to effectively reduce reliance on gas and reduce emissions. Concerted action is needed now to expedite the long-term transition to well-insulated buildings powered by renewables and heat pumps. Turning down thermostats can reduce reliance on gas immediately.”

“The technologies to decarbonise buildings are already available, but what isn’t happening is the regulation and coordination in addressing retrofitting of existing buildings - and ensuring that all new buildings are zero emissions.”

“Governments need to take a key role in decarbonising this sector, not least because of the wide variety of actors involved, from banks to property developers, architects, contractors and landlords,” she said. “Governments need to regulate, incentivise and facilitate this transformation.”

To become Paris Agreement compatible, the emissions intensity of buildings use needs to drop by 90-95% by 2040, leading to a fully decarbonised building stock by 2050. To reach these emissions and energy intensity goals, 2.5-3.5% of buildings need to be retrofitted every year. All new buildings need to be zero carbon from today.

The report outlines the broad set of actions that governments can include in their buildings sector decarbonisation strategies, based on four vital elements: the technologies needed to replace carbon-intensive technologies, performance standards and building codes, costs and finance, and ways to engage the multitude of actors in the sector.

One of the difficulties in addressing the buildings sector’s persistently high emissions is its diversity and complexity, which requires a locally tailored mix of measures for existing and new buildings. That mix needs to combine multiple different strategies: from building codes to tax incentives and subsidies, through to providing training to establish a skilled workforce.

While the report didn’t find a single country on the right track, it contains many case studies of promising strategies being developed at national, regional and city levels, from Sweden’s expansion of heat pumps, to comprehensive retrofitting programmes in the city of Ithaca, in the US’s state of New York.

“Getting the design of government policy right is critical: we list examples of successful policies, and some where poor scheme design has proven to be counterproductive,” said Climate Analytics’ Ryan Wilson.

Sweden has been working on its strategy for decades, slowly ramping up a carbon price over 40 years with careful consideration of the impact on landlords and tenants, which helped to achieve highly efficient and electrified buildings heating.

“Sweden provides some great insights as to how governments can tackle this important sector. The UK provides an example of what not to do: short-term funding timelines, insufficient funding, ineffective incentives, and rushed scheme design and implementation have led to poor outcomes over more than a decade,” added Wilson.

Governments need to urgently avoid investments in new gas infrastructure wherever possible. This could include, for example, mandating heat pumps for new builds, or banning their connection to gas mains. New gas investments would lock the sector into this unsustainable fuel for decades.

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