Interview: Climate-friendly technologies in MENA

View to downtown Amman, Jordan; Photo: Francisco Anzola

View to downtown Amman, Jordan; Photo: Francisco Anzola

Transforming the building sector is one of the major challenges facing efforts to achieve the mitigation targets under the Paris Agreement on climate change to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Over 30 per cent of global energy consumption and some 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are derived from buildings. The project Accelerating Zero-Emission Building Sector Ambitions in the MENA Region is helping the relevant ministries and stakeholders in a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to promote the use of climate-friendly heating and cooling technologies. Sven Schimschar, Karoline Steinbacher and Moritz Schäfer from Ecofys, a part of Navigant Consulting, are in charge of the project, which is funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU).

Ms Steinbacher, Mr Schäfer, Mr Schimschar, the upcoming round of climate negotiations will now focus increasingly on delivering the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in individual sectors. And the building sector clearly has a special role to play in this – why is that?

Sven Schimschar, Managing Consultant, Ecofys – A Navigant Company, Photo: EcofysNavigantThe building sector is responsible for over one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and its energy requirements are likely to double by 2050 unless some ambitious steps are taken. Factors influencing energy consumption in the building sector include population and economic growth, rising living standards and the fact that the space occupied by buildings worldwide is expected to almost double by 2050. The local effects of climate change are also having an impact on the amount of energy consumed in using buildings – particularly in cooling them.

At the same time, however, efficient technologies exist, based on renewable energy sources, as well as other energy-saving measures. What makes the sector a key to delivering the NDCs is the major potential it offers for reducing emissions. While it appears that the building sector needs to cut its emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 for the Paris climate targets to be met, at the moment that potential is not being exploited, particularly as far as heating and cooling are concerned – one of the biggest levers for reducing emissions in buildings. For instance, tried-and-tested measures and technologies, which in many places are also cost-effective, such as solar thermal systems, are not being applied consistently enough. This is also having an adverse impact on the long-term emissions trend in the building sector, as the technology that is installed is then retained over many years.

Many countries have recognised how important the sector is to their climate ambitions. According to the NDC Partnership, 53 states have mentioned energy-efficient measures for the building sector in their NDCs, 38 of whom also make explicit reference to building standards. To progress from setting targets to actually delivering results, various initiatives have been set up in recent years to support implementation. These include the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction and the Green Buildings Council. And our IKI project also focuses clearly on bridging the gap between targets and delivery.

And how exactly is this trend manifesting itself in your target countries of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon?

Egypt approved a national energy efficiency action plan for 2012–2015, which aims to raise energy efficiency by five per cent. The framework for energy efficiency, however, remains relatively weak, especially in terms of effective implementation. The challenge posed by implementation is also very apparent in the other countries in the region, with one major obstacle being a shortage of personnel and effective resources for compliance with requirements.

Karoline Steinbacher, Managing Consultant, Ecofys – A Navigant Company, Photo: EcofysNavigantIn 2012, Jordan enacted a law on renewable energy and energy efficiency, which has been implemented by means of several ordinances. Through its National Building Council, the Jordanian Government has issued regulations on, for instance, insulation, energy efficiency and solar power, and it has published a Green Building Manual. Although these standards are binding, here too it is proving a challenge to implement and monitor them.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan (NEEAP) 2016–2021 brings together all the country’s energy efficiency ambitions. Our local partners feel that limited progress is being made on implementing the strategy. As far as financing energy efficiency investments is concerned, Lebanon has succeeded in unlocking private funding thanks to the NEEAP. Although its technical and institutional capacities are stronger than others in the region, overarching challenges in the electricity sector, such as poor supply quality and an uncertain investment climate, are hindering the development of energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.

So can energy efficiency and renewable energies find a place in buildings in countries like Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, given the preconditions in terms of climate and technology?

Moritz Schäfer, Managing Consultant, Ecofys – A Navigant Company, Photo: EcofysNavigantAlthough, in the focal countries of our project, most regions enjoy a warm climate and there is less need for heating than in Germany, it can still get cool in winter, especially in the mountains, necessitating the use of heating systems. Coupled with the need for hot water, which is always a requirement, and a significant and growing demand for cooling, it is important to use efficient heating and cooling systems, and/or systems based on renewable energy. After all, energy efficiency measures such as insulation or better windows can significantly reduce the amount of energy required by buildings, both existing and new ones, while the remaining requirement can be covered by renewable supply systems such as heat pumps or solar thermal energy. Improving energy efficiency by switching from inefficient standard systems, such as conventional boilers or cooling circuits with low annual coefficients of performance, to much more efficient systems can in itself also do a lot to mitigate climate change. In the countries of the MENA region, and in our focal countries in particular, a major contribution can be made to climate protection in this area, while also giving people better quality housing.

Are the people of these countries aware of the risks posed by climate change, or of the potential that energy efficiency and renewables offer in the building sector?

People in these countries can see the consequences of climate change for themselves. Rising temperatures, a phenomenon exacerbated in cities in particular due to the heat island effect, lead to a drastic increase in the demand for cooling power. However, this realisation does not always go hand in hand with a distinct awareness of the potential offered by energy efficiency and renewable energy in buildings. The many interviews that we have conducted with homeowners in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon clearly demonstrate that spending on energy efficiency is a long way down their list of priorities in their household budget. Given the financial situation of the vast majority of the population in these countries, it is unsurprising that people are not really prepared to wait until an investment starts paying for itself. So it’s all the more important to provide ready access to interest-free loans or grants in order to offset the – albeit relatively low – additional cost of investing in more energy-efficient appliances.

Based on your specific experience, where do you think the biggest obstacles on the path to zero-emission buildings lie in the region?

Of course, different barriers have their own particular significance in different countries. However, some trends certainly exist, as we can see across the region from our discussions with local actors and exchanges with the people developing pilot projects under our IKI project, as well as from our interviews with various stakeholder groups. One trend is the access to financing that I have already mentioned. Although there are some very promising funding mechanisms, such as the JREEEF in Jordan or the NEEREA in Lebanon, it is often still hard to access cheap loans and it takes too long for loans to actually be paid out. A key measure in this regard is to provide training to bank staff, but also to the people writing the applications. As part of our project, we have devised a tool that allows project developers to calculate the cost-effectiveness of measures, such as various efficient heating and cooling systems, and that can serve as a basis for financing.

At the same time, we also see a lack of knowledge about energy efficiency among technicians, project developers and architects – those people, in other words, who are in a position to incorporate efficient heating and cooling into their projects. One final barrier is the shortage of resources, personnel and capacities for monitoring compliance with standards. In our project, we make specific recommendations on how the implementation can be made more successful in future, and share examples of good practice from the region, such as in Amman.

Where do you think there might be underestimated potential in this sector that could be leveraged to transform the building sector, including as part of future IKI projects?

Alongside ‘traditional’ solutions like insulation, double or triple glazing and more efficient heating and cooling systems, other measures could also have a major impact on energy consumption. For instance, increasing thermal mass when constructing new buildings can significantly reduce how much cooling they will require, especially when combined with greater use of shading systems. Using more ventilation systems with heat recovery, both for heating and cooling, can also alleviate the energy burden considerably.

In the past, because of cultural norms and the lack of a legal framework, hardly any apartment blocks were heated centrally, so each flat has its own system. A change of approach, including the introduction of new ways of sharing energy consumption costs equitably in apartment blocks, could promote the greater centralisation of communal systems, which would be more efficient.

However, experts and local people often lack the necessary awareness of the issues to exploit the various areas of potential. Even more could be done in this regard, including, for instance, providing people with more information on the energy performance of their own building. Launching a building certification scheme that also highlighted potential technical – and financial – improvements, would be a good start.

Ms Steinbacher, Mr Schäfer, Mr Schimschar, thank you for talking to us!