The struggle for Europe’s green construction norms

Negotiations on the EU’s revised construction product regulation are drawing to a close after months of fighting behind the scenes between industry groups and green advocates.

The regulation, dating from 2011, aims to standardise construction products across the EU, with a view to promoting innovation in an otherwise conservative sector.

But instead of fostering intra-EU trade, policymakers agree that EU rules governing construction products have become a bloated mess that does not work as intended.

When the European Commission presented its proposal to reform the regulation last year, it politely described the current policy framework as “underperforming”.

Others, like German centre-right lawmaker Christian Doleschal, are more candid. Doleschal, the European Parliament’s speaker on the revised regulation, criticised the current rules for causing a “backlog” of more than 400 applications to put new construction products on the EU market.

One source working closely with the law referred to the regulation as “gobbledygook”.

The European Parliament and EU member states are currently discussing their respective positions on the regulation before entering final “trilogue” talks, possibly before the autumn.

The Commission’s proposed reform aims to create a genuine EU-wide single market for construction products and simplify implementation for EU countries that are currently struggling with the regulation’s overly complex structure.

Above all, the European Commission hopes that the new policy framework will enable the sector to deliver on the EU’s climate objectives, including its flagship “renovation wave” programme aimed at refurbishing buildings across Europe so that they consume less energy and emit less CO2.

Construction products are big business. Their manufacturing accounts for 50% of the material consumption in the EU, one-third of waste produced, and about one-third of water consumed. They are at the heart of the construction industry ecosystem, worth almost one trillion euros.

But construction products are far from sustainable and the Commission wants to make them more durable, repairable, recyclable, and easier to re-manufacture.

To do this, Brussels plans to extend the EU’s existing Ecodesign rules to construction products, setting standards for circularity and reducing their overall environmental and climate footprint.

“We want sustainable products to become the norm on the European market,” EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans said when the initiative was launched in 2022.

Industry resistance

But the Commission’s move has proved unpopular with the industry, which wants construction products excluded from the EU’s Ecodesign rules and assessed on a case-by-case basis instead.

“Construction products should be clearly excluded from the Ecodesign Regulation,” Deutsche Bauchemie, a German industry lobby group, stressed in a statement in January.

Construction Products Europe (CPE), the industry’s trade organisation, also expressed resistance, saying a “one-size-fits-all approach is not applicable given the wide variety of construction sectors”.

Instead, CPE called “for the applicability of these principles to be assessed for each category or family products in co-operation with industry.” In EU parlance, that would entail a self-created pick-and-choose menu for sustainability requirements.

Direct line with EU Parliament negotiator

In their persuasion efforts, industry groups have found a listening ear with Christian Doleschal, according to a draft EU Parliament document seen by EURACTIV.

The German MEP’s draft parliamentary report on the revised regulation, obtained by EURACTIV, contains track changes with comments from his team. They provide a glimpse into the influence exerted by industry while Doleschal was drafting the Parliament’s initial position on the construction product regulation.

In one example, Doleschal’s team asked for changes to the text “following request [of the] sanitary/ceramic lobby”, the document shows.

When it came to regulating 3D printing in construction, “some stakeholders such as CPE believe that this para is not needed and is even discriminating,” Doleschal’s team noted. Work on that section will continue “once we receive [a] concrete proposal from CPE after the summer break”, they added.

On another part of the law, Doleschal’s team proposed to force product manufacturers to provide documentation in a “commonly machine-readable, but non-alterable” format at the request of Deutsche Bauchemie.

Several other additions to the draft law got pushed by the centre-right lawmaker as “requested by industry”, like one limiting the scope of action of a secondary standard body, the document shows.

Doleschal declined EURACTIV’s invitation to comment on the draft report.

No pushback

The German lawmaker is currently in the process of negotiating a final text with representatives of other parties in the European Parliament before the text is put to a vote in the assembly’s internal market committee in late May.

Campaigners, for their part, worry that few lawmakers in Parliament care enough about the construction product regulation.

Many in fact, don’t understand the file, said Federica Pozzi, a programme manager at Ecos, a standard-focused NGO. And because the law is so technical, “capacity on the Parliament’s side to discuss the law is rather limited”, she added.

Sources familiar with the negotiations said negotiations between Parliament groups have often been short, due to the technical nature of the issue at hand.

When approached by EURACTIV, other parliamentary rapporteurs working alongside Doleschal on the regulation declined to comment.

A shield against green rules

To the wider construction industry, whose business model has stayed largely unchanged for decades, the mooted Ecodesign rules for construction products have been used as a tool to push back against perceived “green” overreach by Brussels.

“Content-related intervention by the Commission should be limited to the correction of formal errors and the addition of necessary content that cannot be developed by CEN,” said Deutsche Bauchemie.

CEN is shorthand for the European Committee for Standardisation, the association bringing together the national standardisation bodies of 34 European countries.

A similar pushback is coming from EU countries, who “have pushed for a more dominant role for the European Standardisation Body for Construction products to be able to propose all legal obligations on manufacturers through standards,” explained Ecos’ Pozzi.

This would take “away the Commission’s empowerment to draft legal acts, even in case of system failure”, the campaigner added.

As a result, CEN “would be a private entity with little oversight from the European legislators designing standards that contain obligations, including on the environment”, Pozzi warned.

For the construction industry, another potential shield from environmental obligations is the technical standards known as ‘EN 15804’, which they say should be upheld when performing a life-cycle assessment of different construction products.

“For many years already, our industry has been voluntarily delivering Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) based on EN 15804,” said Construction Products Europe (CEP).

“For the sake of transparency and clarity, we request that EN 15804:2012 +A2:2019 is clearly mentioned in the proposal as the official methodology to be used for the assessment of these obligations, thereby avoiding any misinterpretation,” it said in a position paper.

But critics retort that the methodology covers only “50% of the environmental impact of a construction product”, saying the move by CPE is designed to push back against new Ecodesign rules.

The industry, meanwhile, says it prefers using the existing standards rather than new ones to be developed under the aegis of the European Commission.


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