EU agrees mandate for "nearly zero energy" homes

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - All new buildings constructed in Europe after 2020 will have to be virtually carbon-neutral after the European Parliament gave new energy standards the last approval they needed Tuesday.

The standards are expected to have a significant long-term impact on the EU’s bills for gas imports for heating from Russia, Norway and Algeria, worth tens of billions of euros each year.

The European Union’s mandate for “nearly zero-energy buildings” will kick in for all new public buildings in the European Union after 2018, and for all new homes and offices two years later.

Environmentalists gave the standards a guarded welcome, but said they would take effect too late and would do little to encourage the renovation of Europe’s existing housing stock.

“Investing in building renovation is a win-win scenario, creating jobs in Europe’s largest employing sector, reducing energy bills and improving our energy security,” said Green group politician Claude Turmes.

Europe’s construction sector directly employs 14 million workers and contributes about one tenth of EU gross domestic product, says the European Builders Confederation.

“With buildings accounting for 36 percent of the EU’s greenhouse gases, improving their energy efficiency is also crucial for meeting the EU’s climate change goals,” said Turmes.

The 27-country EU plans to cut carbon emissions to a fifth below 1990 levels by 2020. It is currently debating whether to tighten those curbs after the recession caused an 11 percent cut from industry in just one year.

The Parliament had originally proposed that from 2018, all new buildings would have to reduce their carbon footprint to zero, but European governments said that was too ambitious and diluted the plan.

The standards eliminate an earlier threshold of 1,000 square meters, meaning the new rules apply to all buildings, big or small.

“This will heavily improve the impact of the directive and offer great potential for small and medium-sized enterprises, since refurbishment requirements will now cover almost all homes,” said the European Builders Confederation.

The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, now has the complex task of defining the technical specifications for such minimum energy buildings.

Editing by James Jukwey