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The built environment in Europe will need to transform to achieve the EU’s goals for net-zero emissions

The EU has embarked on a large-scale transformation of its economies. Decarbonization targets and climate policies (like Fit for 55 and RePowerEU) require that emissions reduce quickly in a short time. According to McKinsey, the built environment is a critical puzzle piece for both decarbonization and the energy crisis. Responsible for 35% of energy-related emissions in the EU and 32% of natural gas consumption, the sector must transform to enable the region’s decarbonization targets to be met.

A new McKinsey analysis shows that, by 2030, this could save up to 30 to 40 percent on a household’s energy costs (including monthly costs of power and gas and annualized infrastructure costs). Moreover, industries that are still in the process of scaling (like heat-pump production) could grow into global leaders, while existing, mature industries could be more readily available (such as solar PV production). McKinsey estimates show that over two million new jobs could be created through this effort.

The analysis reveals three initiatives that have the largest capacity to substantially improve energy efficiency of buildings in the EU: drastically enhancing the insulation of homes and commercial buildings; greatly ramping up electric heat-pump installation; and strongly scaling the roll-out of rooftop solar PV.

“We size the opportunities for the European market between now and 2030, offer a view on key prerequisites, and share a perspective on the implications these initiatives have for key stakeholders. The task at hand is immense—the proposed initiatives require a formidable turnaround of Europe’s built environment. Yet, if successful, the upside could be unprecedented”, says McKinsey.

Structural challenges

The building stock is large, old, and under-insulated—which poses fundamental challenges for a rapid transition. First, the stock is large, with 222 million residential dwellings (apartments and houses) and 12 million commercial buildings as of 2018. A successful transition will require that hundreds of millions of owners across the EU market make sizeable investments in their properties.

According to the analysis, “this stock is disproportionately old—the region has a low new-build rate (0.8 buildings are built annually for every 100 existing ones versus 1.1 on average for the OECD), with more than 50 percent of buildings over 40 years old. This means the overall building stock improvements cannot rely on replacing old buildings with more efficient new builds”.

Finally, building stock that is poorly insulated will need significant work to reach modern insulation baselines. Almost 53 percent of all European dwellings are rated as “low insulation”—they have an average U-value (thermal transmittance) above 1.1W/m2K.7 These dwellings use a disproportionate amount of heating energy, at 62 percent of the energy in building stock.

Warming up to huge opportunities

Despite these challenges, McKinsey says that the EU’s built environment needs to make a broad range of changes to meet decarbonization targets. The list of potential interventions includes installing rooftop solar, replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, improving insulation across the building stock, expanding the use of smart thermostats and Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS), deploying district heating solutions, and many more.

For the purpose of the analysis, McKinsey focused on three levers—heat-pump adoption, rooftop solar installations, and insulation improvements.

The three pathways could potentially lead to different energy-demand reduction, emissions reduction, and annual investment cost by 2030.

Finally, McKinsey explains that “achieving the FF55 or BA pathways will require activity to be scaled up significantly—up to 103 million unique installations will be needed across the EU between 2023 to 2030. This growth could open up an exciting space with opportunities to create new industries and establish EU supply chains. Although the transition to meeting the EU’s net-zero targets could lead to worker displacement, these changes could also allow for an opportunity to reskill and retrain incumbent workers and create employment for thousands of people.



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