How the Revision of the Construction Products Regulation Can Support Cities in Building Sustainably

Authored By:
Irene García, Built Environment Lead at Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance
Louise Coffineau, Senior Policy Advisor at Eurocities

The revision of the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) will be voted in the European Parliament’s plenary on July 11. And it is not receiving the attention it deserves.

The CPR is one of the two most essential regulations to ensure the proper implementation of a low carbon Renovation Wave in the European Union (together with the Energy Performance Buildings Directive). As such, it has an extraordinary potential to dramatically cut down emissions from the construction sector, which to date remains largely unchallenged.

Construction products have an embodied carbon footprint of 250 million tonnes every year – the equivalent of almost 50 million homes’ electricity use for one year – and materials such as cement and steel account for 80% of these.

In the EU, construction materials account for 50% of all extracted materials, and 35% of the waste. However, if the EU is serious about becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, it needs to bring the construction sector into the transition.

Cities across Europe are already committed to this and taking big steps in this direction.

Here are some top examples:

Helsinki is steering construction through a carbon footprinting process. The city is currently developing a low carbon district based on energy efficiency, green planning, low carbon concrete, and where the buildings have been designed to be flexible and adaptable for future uses. From the get-go, the proposals’ carbon footprint were half of the business as usual ones (16 kgCO2e/m2/a).

Cities like Barcelona are resorting to biobased and low carbon materials to develop affordable housing. In 2022, the city built on a former cinema site 85 social dwellings. This has become the largest wooden-structured residential building in Spain. Amsterdam is exploring how bio-based materials can be used for insulation and boost building renovation of affordable housing. Bordeaux and Stockholm, to name a few, are adding requirements on low carbon materials  in their procurements.

Whereas other cities are encouraging the reuse of materials from construction projects. Either because they have not been used in the first place, or because their usage phase can be extended. Lille Métropole is refurbishing the former headquarters of renowned French high street brand La Redoute into a new home for digital start-ups. In total, 2.5 tonnes of waste and 19.760 kg eq. CO2 have been avoided so far. Tampere recently launched a circular construction competition for the development of a residential multi-story building in the Kissanmaa district. The selected project presented a main structure/frame with low carbon concrete, a façade of reused bricks and timber, reused windows, and outdoor structures of reused timber and concrete elements.

As implementers of the green transition, local governments are unquestionably using their competences in urban planning to implement sustainable requirements for their buildings and spearhead this transition. European cities struggle, however, when scaling sustainable solutions.

The revision of the Construction Products Regulation is a unique opportunity to decarbonize our built environment, and EU policymakers should consider the following in their negotiations:

Provide carbon footprint benchmarks. Today, builders and manufacturers do not have the incentive to increase knowledge, or to implement innovative solutions. But when they are asked to do so, as the aforementioned examples show, they are responsive and up to the challenge. They just need clear guidance and benchmarks of what it is required of them. “Increasing accurate, transparent, and accessible information, with standardised methods and labels for everyone will translate into more possibilities for the use of low-carbon materials”, indicates Miisa Tähkänen, from Green Building Council Finland.

Establish key environmental indicators (i.e. recycled content, limits on embodied carbon emissions and bio-based materials). This new structured approach to developing environmental and climate requirements under the CPR should include the obligation to disclose data all along products’ life cycle, with information not only on CO2, but also covering circularity and toxicity. “In Nantes, we build, renovate and transform the city in a way that fosters a circular economy, creates local jobs, and greener space for citizens. To continue and accelerate this transition, cities need to be supported and enhanced by an ambitious EU framework. Making available environmental characteristics of the products will ease the selection of the most sustainable option to design a better urban environment”, states Johanna Rolland, the Mayor of Nantes.

Introduce take-back schemes to the construction sector. To prevent landfill or destruction of unused construction products, suppliers could be incentivised to take back components and products not used in specific projects that could be suitable for other developments. “Amsterdam is already working hard towards closing the loop by reusing and recycling materials. However, like many other cities, we face major difficulties (such as the storage, exchange and insurance around secondary materials, accurate emissions data and no EU-wide database of low-carbon and biobased products, etc.) An ambitious EU framework for construction products and materials is needed by Amsterdam and cities like us to achieve our goal to become a fully carbon neutral and circular city by 2050 and ensuring a good life for everyone within our planet’s boundaries”, highlights Zita Pels, Deputy for Sustainability and Housing Mayor for sustainability and housing from the city of Amsterdam.

This gap in legislation is jeopardising the transition. It is the European Union’s duty to set the right framework to bolster green innovation in construction and enable cities and all stakeholders along the construction trail to move fast and forward in building sustainably.

Photo Credit:  Fabrice Caterini, Inediz