29 July 2019 | Reading 9 mins.

Health renovations: a sensible climate revolution

Adrian Joyce
Campaign Director, Renovate Europe

Adrian Joyce, Campaign Director, Renovate Europe

The climate case for renovating Europe’s energy-inefficient building stock is almost too well known to bear repeating. Responsible for 36% of Europe’s carbon dioxide emissions, the sector has been a “low hanging fruit” in the decarbonization debate for almost as long as policy-makers have been jumping at higher-hanging baubles (take a bow Carbon Capture and Storage).

But an increasing body of academic work is revealing just how cost-effective building renovations could be when factoring in the externalities of inadequate housing. The International Energy Agency, for example, toted the by-products of slashed consumer energy bills, energy imports and alleviated fuel poverty at €500 billion a year in its 2018 outlook report. What reports like this often miss though, are the cost benefits of improved health, productivity and cognitive performance that building renovations bring in their wake.

Our health and our buildings are intimately linked. Most of the air we breathe over our lifetimes is found indoors and factors such as temperature, light, humidity, draughts and even noise can determine our susceptibility to illness, our moods and general sense of well-being. We actually spend about 90% of our time indoors, imbibing air that is on average between two and five times more toxic than that found outside, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sometimes, it can be 100 times more dangerous. Tragically, the people exposed to the greatest volumes of noxious substances tend to be those already most vulnerable to their effects through age, ill health or poverty – also known as health inequity.

Research shows that people living near traffic intersections suffer much higher levels of indoor pollutants. San Francisco Civic Center. Photo: Gordon Mak

Bad air can come from many sources such as mould, gases, smoke, allergens, and chemicals used in everyday household activities. For example, nearly all the people surveyed in one community of single-family air-tight homes in California had been exposed to excessive levels of formaldehyde.

Some of the deadliest forms of pollution originate from outdoor sources, before becoming trapped inside buildings – particulates, ozone and nitrogen dioxide are good examples of these. Research shows that people living near traffic intersections suffer much higher levels of indoor pollutants. One study last year found that up to 63% of indoor PM2.5 particulates pollution came from outdoor sources, even when windows were closed. After traffic, the greatest cause of this pollution are power plants, and much of their demand is generated by heating and cooling from, yes, poorly designed buildings.

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