New framework from “Efficiency first” to “Decarbonization first” in European building sector needed

05/25/2023 - In addition to costly renovations, many inexpensive measures exist to facilitate the diffusion of renewables in the building sector. As of 2019, buildings were responsible for about a third of European GHG emissions. A key objective of EU energy use policies to reduce these emissions should therefore be focused on the decarbonization of buildings, beyond merely decreasing energy demand. This is stated in a new Commentary published in the journal Joule by a team of researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE).
New framework from “Efficiency first” to “Decarbonization  first” in European building sector needed
Decarbonization is needed in building sector. Photo: Anthony Esau/Unsplash

“By putting more efforts on the enabling role of efficiency, policy makers could safeguard the possibility to decarbonize buildings through decarbonized energy consumption, even in case of persistently slow advances in energy savings”, states Antoine Levesque, PIK lead-author of the study.  “Buildings energy use policies could also enable the decarbonization of buildings less expensively by including the full breadth of —to some extent inexpensive— measures available, instead of relying solely on loosely-targeted demand reductions,” he adds.

First objective to facilitate the diffusion of renewables is to lower heating temperatures, i.e. the water temperature used to convey heat through radiators and floor heating. Low temperatures are a pre-requisite for a widespread penetration and an efficient use of the main available technologies to decarbonize heat, namely heat pumps and carbon-free district heating networks. A second objective is to reduce power sector challenges to meet heating demand, while simultaneously integrating higher shares of variable renewable energy into the system. The roll-out of decentralized and large-scale heat pumps is likely to exert an upward pressure on power prices due to the seasonality of thermal demand.

 “By combining a range of actions, the suggested “Decarbonization First” principle has the potential to achieve a suitable building stock at lower cost,” says Michael Pahle, co-author of the study and Working Group Leader “Climate & Energy Policy” at PIK.

The researchers suggest that energy use policies could introduce goals for the share of low-temperature buildings, for the heating peak demand, and for the customer enrolment and participation in demand response programmes. In addition, the targeting of publicly funded subsidy programmes and buildings standards should improve. The priority could be set on insulation improvements of buildings with high heating temperatures and peak demand, on regions where distribution and transmission networks may become congested, as well as on smaller but impactful measures such as heating optimisation, addressing system faults, or replacing critical radiators. Furthermore, with the electrification of heat, consumers should increasingly face price schemes that better reflect the hourly abundance or scarcity of energy and allow for adaptive behaviour.


Antoine Levesque, Sebastian Osorio, Sebastian Herkel, Michael Pahle (2023): Rethinking the role of efficiency for the decarbonisation of buildings is essential. Joule


PIK press office
Phone: +49 331 288 25 07


Twitter: @PIK_Climate