Special Report: Building our Way Out of the Crisis. A wider view: shifting paradigms in the buildings sector.

Published 26/06/2013 by euractiv.com

The debate on what kinds of buildings we should live and work in is shifting, with construction experts and EU policymakers moving away from focusing simply on energy efficiency to a broader appreciation of sustainable buildings, taking into account their environmental, social and economic impact.

On the European policy-making level, this change in emphasis is being led by the European Commission’s environment department, which is currently working on a new policy paper (Communication) on Sustainable Buildings.

Speaking at an event on 25 June during EU Sustainable Energy Week, Pavel Misiga, a head of unit at the Commission’s environment division, announced that the Communication, which is still in its early stages, would focus on resource use in both residential and non-residential sectors (excluding industrial buildings and infrastructure).

It will focus on how to improve the environmental sustainability of buildings – moving beyond the current policy debates on energy efficiency – to look at embodied energy in buildings, water usage, construction materials and waste. Embodied energy takes account of all the energy required to produce a product, which helps to determine its impact on climate change.

“The objective is to reduce the environmental impacts of buildings, and we expect economic benefits for society and for the construction sector,” said Misiga.

Looking at the whole lifecycle of buildings

When it comes to emissions, which is a key EU policy priority for 2020 and beyond, the choices over which materials are used in buildings can have a major impact beyond energy efficiency. For example, an investment of €100,000 would save 75 tonnes of CO2 over 20 years, while the same investment in low carbon concrete would save 663 tonnes of CO2 immediately.

The difficulty facing both construction companies on the supply side and consumers on the demand side is knowing how to choose between the many technologies and materials, and what is the best choice for sustainability.

“We need knowledge and tools to decide what the right materials are to use in buildings,” affirmed Misiga.

Companies in the sustainable construction sector are also pushing for a wider perspective when it comes to the buildings of the future, and would like policymakers to take into account other issues such as the air quality in buildings, or the amount of daylight that can be harnessed. Supporters of such measures argue this would lead to better health and wellbeing for buildings’ occupants, given that in OECD countries, people spend about 90% of their lives inside buildings.

“The holistic approach is gaining more and more ground. We have to look at the whole lifecycle [of buildings]”, Lone Feifer, programme director for Sustainable Living in Buildings at Velux, the roof window manufacturer, told EurActiv.

Velux argues that looking only at energy-efficiency at the expense of other approaches in sustainable buildings is “one-sided”.

Feifer said that within the last one to two years there has been more interest in looking at buildings from a whole lifecycle perspective. “We feel as manufacturers that we get asked about that a lot more”, said Feifer, who adds that “some very-forward looking public procurement agencies” are already taking such factors into account when it comes to buildings, as are some environmental impact assessments of buildings.

Feifer would like to see this perspective incorporated into the CEN/TC 350, a common European standard for sustainable construction works.

Mixed reactions to Commission plans

Misiga told EurActiv that the public consultation on the new communication on sustainable buildings would be launched on 1 July, and that he hoped it would be ready by the first quarter of 2014. He conceded that so far, reaction from industry to this new initiative was mixed:

“It’s mixed, because part of the industry says [it is] another initiative [they will] have to comply with it. It will involve costs and changes, so we certainly don’t need it now. There are other stakeholders who are very positive. We have support from member states and from investors,” said Misiga, who formerly worked with the environment minister of his native Slovakia.

He argued that it was important to develop a standard framework for sustainable buildings to reduce risks for investors, who see the overall move to sustainability in buildings but risk investing in a product now that nobody wants in 20 years’ time.

EuroACE, the European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings, agrees that investors would benefit from a more holistic approach towards sustainable buildings across the EU.

“I do support the DG Environment view that a holistic approach to buildings should be taken. The building is a system of products and components put together: the design and conception of the building, its orientation, how it is constructed, and how the components and the equipment in the building work together”, Adrian Joyce, secretary-general at EuroACE, told EurActiv.

Joyce echoed industry sentiment that the current glut of different EU regulations was strangling innovation in the construction sector.

“Many regulations work against each other…the construction sector is among the most highly regulated in Europe, and our members suffer from the high number of different regulations at the national and European level,” said Joyce.

“When a new product comes to market, they have to go through a number of different certification schemes, that’s a big cost. Many good products are not reaching certain markets. It would be much better to have a European system that somehow took account of different climatic zones, but that it was one approach, and only one fee [to be paid by manufacturers],” he said.

Desertec abandons solar power export dream

Published 31/05/2013 by euractiv.com

The Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) has abandoned its strategy to export solar power generated from the Sahara to Europe, killing hopes of boosting the continent’s share of renewable electricity with cheap external supplies.

In a telephone interview with EurActiv, Dii CEO Paul van Son admitted that the project’s initial export-focus represented “one-dimensional thinking”.

Although the industrial alliance was set up to develop renewable energy supplies in the Maghreb to feed up to 20% of European electricity demand by 2050, Dii now concedes that Europe can provide for most of its needs indigenously.

“If we talk about renewable energy from North Africa, only a small fraction will ultimately supply the European market,” said van Son, adding that the European market could supply up to 90% of its own power demand.

“Frankly, four years ago Desertec was all about bringing energy from North Africa. We abandoned that one-dimensional thinking. It’s now more about creating integrated markets in which renewable energy will bring its advantages … That’s the main objective,” he said.

Desertec ‘too expensive and utopian’

Critics of Desertec questioned the viability of a project to generate 100GW by 2050 at a cost of €400 billion, and doubts multiplied when founding shareholder Siemens pulled out of the venture in November last year. In the same month, Dii failed to get the support of the financially-strapped Spanish government for a 500MW CSP demonstration project in Ouarzazate, Morocco, though the project is still going ahead.

“[Desertec] is not viable in its original form because it is too expensive and utopian. It attracted very little funding. It has essentially collapsed into more or less a bilateral deal,” argues Peter Droege, president of Eurosolar, an industry association.

European electricity players question Dii’s initial business model, arguing that its export-focus was incompatible with current levels of grid interconnectivity between the Maghreb and Europe, and within Europe itself. They add that the market is already struggling to absorb additional renewable energy capacity.

“At a very basic level, we are still missing lines and capacities for export,” according to Susanne Nies, head of Energy Policy and Generation at Eurelectric, the European electricity industry association.

“Spain is already struggling with its own excess renewables production – additional imports from third countries would certainly compound the problem,” she added.

“It is difficult to argue that the EU needs the additional RES capacity,” she said, noting that the technical, economic and regulatory framework of the electricity system needs adjusting in order to cope.

Van Son, who wants Destertec to focus on market synergies, agrees that there is a long way to go before electricity market integration in Europe but argues that that there is a business case to be made.

“If we see the tremendous synergies in terms of real money saving then politicians should not be allowed not to take advantage of these energy synergies. Harming the citizens of Europe and the Middle East is not what politicians should want to do,” he said.

Unappealing market conditions

North African countries, the initial focal point of Dii’s activities, are concentrating on meeting their own domestic power demands, which are growing rapidly, and have anyway been hesitant to commit to what they see as unappealing European market conditions.

“We don’t know if the prices of electricity on the European market are going to give us a return on investments,” said Mustapha Mekideche, the vice-president of Algeria’s state-owned Conseil National Economique et Social (CNES), speaking at an Algiers energy conference in November 2012.

Algeria’s state utility group Sonelgaz signed a cooperation agreement with Dii in Brussels in December 2011, despite doubts from senior Algerian energy decision-makers over Dii’s future.

“The countries of northern Europe need to show their willingness to buy electricity produced from renewable energy,” said Sonelgaz president-director-general Noureddine Bouterfa in an Algerian press interview prior to signing the deal.

Despite Algeria’s ambitious target to produce 40% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 in a bid to free up more gas for export, progress in establishing projects on the ground has been slow, and a promised Dii-Algerian commitment on a CSP plant has not materialised.

RWE still interested

Dii still has its supporters, including German utility RWE, which is keen to expand into the renewable energy sector. In Morocco, the Maghrebi country that has been the most supportive of Desertec, RWE is currently in negotiations with partners to form a coalition, the first step in plans to construct 50MW PV and 50MW wind plants in the Kingdom.

“We are convinced that the Desertec project is a very good opportunity to build up a renewable energy supply for North Africa. Although some people criticise the project, we believe that it will be successful in the long run,” said RWE spokesman Martin Pack.

RWE confirmed that electricity produced from the Moroccan projects would be for the local market and not for export.

EU asked to prevent ‘burnout’ among civil servants

Published 15/09/2014 by euractiv.com

A pioneering new Belgian law that came into effect this month requires all enterprises operating on Belgian territory to take preventive action against the “psycho-social risks” related to work stress.

The coming into force of a new Belgian law on burnout is raising questions over whether European employers, including the European Commission, are doing enough to prevent their employees from succumbing to this debilitating psychological condition, linked to prolonged exposure to stress in the workplace.

As of 1 September this year, Belgian law stipulates that employers must take measures to prevent “psycho-social risk”, including conducting risk analyses and providing counselling to employees to prevent burnout.

This will apply to all enterprises operating on Belgium territory, including the Brussels-based European institutions and the myriad of trade organisations, law firms, media and NGOs working to influence EU legislation.

The new legislation is prompting demands that the European Commission follows suit.

EurActiv has seen an internal email communication from the Union Syndicale, a trade union representing Commission staff, calling on the EU executive to “draw up as soon as possible its own internal rules to give effective protection to its staff as the same level at least as the Belgian law”.

The communication is entitled “Stress, Harassment and Burnout: Belgium has boosted prevention – what’s the Commission waiting for?”

Commission undergoing ‘psychological risk assessment’

The Commission declined to comment directly on the Union’s communication to staff, but a spokesman told EurActiv that the executive was aware of the risk, and was undertaking “a psychological risk assessment to detect any gaps in the present offer” this year.

“The European Commission is aware of the risks of the modern working world, including psychological risks, their influence on employees and the employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for its work force,” said Antony Gravili, spokesman for Inter-institutional relations and Administration.

Compared to the rest of Europe, the new Belgian legislation is ahead of the curve. “To our knowledge, Belgium is a pioneer. It is one of the only countries where burnout is mentioned as forming part of psychosocial risks,” said Dr Patrick Mesters, director of the European Institute for Intervention and Research on Burn Out.

There is no consensus on whether burnout is in fact a psychological condition separate to depression. According to the main professional classifications, burnout is not even qualified as a psychiatric syndrome, as explained by Harry Pomerantz, Clinical Director of the Community Help Service (CHS), a Brussels-based mental health centre.

“Burnout is real, it is there, it is not imaginary. However, if we look at the different classifications (ICD, DSM), burnout has not yet been qualified as a psychiatric syndrome. It is thus often not given as a diagnosis as treatment for it is not reimbursed by many health insurance schemes. Burnout itself is nearly always characterised by a state of utter physical emotional and psychological depletion and exhaustion – this is similar to but also different from depression,” states Pomerantz.

“The dilemma is that although we know it is there, it can also be a polite way for people who are also suffering from depression to give themselves a label that is not taboo. In other words, if you are burnt out then you can be sick but it is not your problem, it is the employer’s problem,” adds Pomerantz.

Victim culture

Thus the new Belgian law is “evidence of a victim culture that perpetuates the illness of the individual,” argues Professor Jonathan Chick, Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director at Castle Craig Hospital in Scotland (an addiction treatment clinic).

The legal solution may even be counterproductive, encouraging companies to develop devious measures to ensure that they do not fall foul of the legal requirements, rather than focusing on really helping their staff.

“We should beware of the unintended consequences of the legislation. Employers who are not good people will devise strategies to always be in the right…and adopt scurrilous measures and subtle demeaning techniques which managers get skilled in if they think there will be a legal challenge,” adds Professor Chick, who will be speaking at a conference on burnout on 10 October, organised by the Community Help Service.

Outside Europe, other methods are being developed to deal with work-related stress:

Japanese ‘dying of workaholism’

“In Japan, where working hard is a badge of honour, they have the WA: Workaholics Anonymous. Members support each other to learn to set limits on themselves and on their employers, and set boundaries which are reasonable,” states Professor Chick.

“The Japanese have a word for ‘dying of workaholism’: Karoshi”, notes Chick. When prime minister Keizō Obuchi had an ultimately fatal stroke in April 2000 at the age of 62, it was said that he died of ‘Karoshi’.

Stress is the second most frequently reported work-related health problem in Europe. In an opinion poll conducted by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work EU-OSHA poll, around 8 in 10 European managers expressed concern about work-related stress in their workplaces; however, less than 30% admitted having implemented procedures to deal with psychosocial risks.

“The thing to be admired in the Belgian legislation is that it raises awareness of burnout. If a workload is structured according to people’s sensitivities, capacities and competences, then you could prevent most burnout cases.  It is obvious that now that burnout has received the deserved attention it is getting, this will stimulate much new research into this phenomenon”, argues Dr Pomerantz.