Buildings as the foundation of an energy-efficient future

May 29, 2023

Solar panels are installed on the roof of a hospital in Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Photo: UNDP Bosnia and Herzegovina / Sulejman Omerbasic

The first thought that comes to mind in response to the question of what the most sustainable energy source is, would most likely be solar or wind. However, energy efficiency costs less than any other energy source and is most sustainable as it literally means less energy used. Essentially, the most efficient energy is the one unused. 

In a period when pollutant concentration is very high and energy poverty is prevalent, plans for a green and energy-efficient future are becoming increasingly common. In the Western Balkans region plus Moldova (“B+ region”), accounting, the building sector is responsible for 30-60 percent of energy consumption and a major contributor to GHG emissions.

It is simple and easy to understand why buildings are identified as the foundation of an energy-efficient future. They are the places where people live, work and rest. But in the B+ region, most buildings are currently energy-inefficient, with many relying on fossil fuels for heating and cooling. The silver lining to this is the significant potential for energy efficiency and renewable energy measures (EERE) to have major impact. Estimated energy savings in buildings range between 20–40 percent, with the highest potential expected within the public sector, followed by the residential sector.

Let’s look at the numbers. The recommended primary energy consumption indicator for new public buildings in the EU amounts to 140 kWh/m2/ann. The estimated primary energy consumption of the existing public buildings in B+ region falls between 425-580, while new public buildings are expected to consume between 140-210. The average difference between the two primary consumption indicators of new (20 percent) and existing (70 percent) public buildings in this region highlights that the conversion to a more energy-efficient building sector can be highly rewarding and effective in each country’s decarbonisation pathway. 

One approach is nearly zero energy buildings (nZEB), buildings with very high energy performance, where the nearly zero or very low amount of energy required is mostly covered by renewable sources produced on-site or nearby the building itself. 

The annual construction rate of the new buildings, however, accounts for only a few percentages in comparison to existing building stock, thus the largest energy savings and emission reduction potential lies in deep renovations of the existing building stock.

Action & Reaction

Newton’s Third Law states that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. Correspondingly, in the context of energy-efficient architecture and renewable energy measures, the decrease of energy consumption and expenses will result in increased living and working comfort.

To achieve a greener future, companies, policymakers, and investors must shift their conventional approach: long-term profitability rather than short-term financial benefit, systematic planning rather than partial retrofitting. UNDP has shown a strong commitment to recognizing the potential of the buildings sector. For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have several projects such as developing the typology of public buildings and conducting the cost-optimal analysis of public buildings with testing of new climate data for non-residential buildings. Depending on the effort invested in removing socio-economic and regulatory-legislative barriers, and in the building sector in general, the success of the nZEB projects will be higher. 

For example, €1 million investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy into public buildings could generate 96 full-time jobs per year. The total estimated annual investment in the B+ region for new nZE public buildings could generate around 156,000 full-time jobs per year.  This would have significant positive impact considering there were about 900,000 people unemployed in the B+ region at the end of 2022.

If marketed as a valuable product, nZEBs should be applied more widely and used to practically apply Newton's Third Law: there will be an equal and opposite reaction in the market. As more and more people recognize their value, the demand will increase, leading to their widespread adoption. Market transformation programmes, legislation enforcement and more awareness campaigns and education should lead to the stage where nZEB is seen as a valuable product, thus breaking construction market inertia, improving conditions for investments and increasing the number of new nZEB public buildings.

What to do?

Implementing EERE measures is not always that easy. Why there is mental in environmental?  Because it requires awareness and behavioural change on individual, societal and governmental levels.

To break the behavioural challenges on the individual level, the general public must be educated about the benefits of nZEBs (lower energy bills, reduced GHG, improved indoor quality and increased comfort). By highlighting these advantages we can show that nZEBs are not just environmentally friendly, but also economically viable and socially beneficial. 

At the moment, the region is still in the starting phase of recognizing and implementing nZEB policies on the governmental side. 

The very first step is to introduce the complete set of nZEB related policies, provide national definitions of nZEB reflecting local conditions, establish national plans for increasing the number of nZEB, develop nZEB-focused financing to provide initial support to the scaling up of its market, and develop training and education programs for building professionals and stakeholders on EERE and nZEB. Our study on defining buildings with nearly zero energy consumption in Bosnia and Herzegovina helped to achieve the country’s development goals and shape its overall trajectory.

To accelerate EERE in buildings in general, it is necessary to implement improved cost-optimal building codes and standards and increase funding for building retrofits. This can be done by creating incentive schemes and policies to encourage the development of a local supply chain for energy-efficient building materials and technologies. Moreover, smart technologies are also a solution, with the implementation of energy management systems and occupancy sensors. 

To achieve their sustainable building goals, countries must establish strong collaboration with both local and international partners. UNDP has been working closely with the governments, civil society and private sectors to promote sustainable building practices in the B+ region. Through its provision of technical assistance, capacity building and policy guidance, the organization has supported the low-carbon and energy efficiency transition in the buildings sector.  

For example, UNDP in Serbia supports municipal Energy Management Systems and Energy Management Information Systems to identify, prioritize and leverage financing for municipal energy efficiency investments. More than 100 public buildings were retrofitted, and we are now working on central government buildings in partnership with the Ministry of Mining and Energy of the Republic of Serbia and Council of Europe Development Bank.
Our partner actions are key for a reliable decarbonisation pathway towards a more sustainable future.