The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Renée Bruel, Director of the Buildings Programme at the European Climate Foundation.
After studying human geography, I wanted to work in development cooperation. I especially wanted to work in cities because that’s where most people live and that’s where the innovation is.
Early in my career, I worked at a Dutch research council. We started developing a new research programme on sustainability and environmental economics. That was when I thought: “Wow, this is so consequential – I want to work on this for the rest of my career.” So I went back to university, followed university courses on environmental science and policies and changed jobs. I started working on energy and climate first for the Dutch government and later for the European Climate Foundation. And I’ve been doing that since then, focusing on how buildings can be built, powered, and heated to fight climate change and be the catalyst for a more just society.
Seeing the benefits
Buildings are not just bricks, concrete or wood. Buildings are the places where people live, work, worship and learn. I think it’s so important to make sure that buildings are part of the energy transition, because that’s where the transition is really close to people. If we get it right on buildings, it will be a big step forward in the right direction. People will immediately feel and see the benefits of living, studying, working in better buildings for themselves.
For a long time, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings was not a topic on the radar of many people. It was more about clean energy supply and closing down coal and other fossil fuel power plants. Now the need to reduce emissions from buildings and the ways to do that has moved much higher up the agenda. I’m very happy about that and hope to have had an impact on that as well.
Social and climate issue
The renovation of the building stock and installing renewable based heating is key to greenhouse gas emissions reduction, since in Europe, the building sector accounts for 1/3 of GHG emissions. The renovation of our buildings is not only about insulation and heat pumps and district heating, but also about improving the quality of life for people who live and work in those buildings. A well-insulated building with ventilation and a clean source of heating and cooling is not just a more sustainable building, needing much less energy. Equally important, it also brings better comfort, ensure more affordable energy bills and reduces health problems. It’s both a social and a climate issue.
In the last few years, we’ve worked on the concept that people have a right to live in a decent quality home, and access to clean energy is a human right, bringing together different stakeholder groups, social justice and climate groups. The worst quality buildings will have to be renovated. These are homes, offices, schools, that have single glazing and lack good insulation. And the poorest people in society live, work or are being educated in those buildings. Sustainable and energy-efficient homes will both protect people, especially the most vulnerable, from the impacts of climate change and build more inclusive and socially just communities.
This idea has been included in a proposal from the European Commission called the European Performance of Buildings Directive. And it’s been negotiated now. It brings together renovation and social justice and improving people’s lives, while working towards a better climate.
Listen to the science
I’ve tried to be an optimist but it’s sometimes hard if you hear that every week a new coal power plant is being opened in some region of the world, sustainable housing isn’t at the top of government agendas, or that new gas boilers for heating are still being installed in European homes. But I’ve never felt like giving up. I hope that when I retire this has changed and we’re moving towards a better future.
I think we’ve spent enough time listening to lobbyists, especially those from the fossil fuel lobby. It’s time to listen to science, and only to the science. Because despite all the setting of climate targets – in 2030, 2040, 2050 – greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing worldwide.
If I had a platform to speak at COP28, I would say: “You need to really act now That means not only promoting the good things but stopping the bad things. Stop burning stuff and end the use of fossil fuels. Stop treating biomass as if it’s carbon neutral; it’s not. It leads to biodiversity losses, to huge greenhouse gas emissions and it undermines social justice. Our current economic model of take, make and waste is unsustainable and has to be changed. So, start acting now.”
True climate neutrality
In the future, if my efforts have been successful, people in Europe would not have to live in homes that are so badly insulated and mouldy that make people choose between heating and eating in winter, or buildings that overheat in summer. People wouldn’t have to cook on open fires anymore or have other health-harming substances in their home. The worst quality buildings would have been upgraded to a decent level, so people’s lives can improve and greenhouse gases in the building sector are reduced. That’s what I hope to have achieved.
I have children, and I hope that they will live in a world that becomes a better and more socially just place. There is a pathway towards true climate neutrality, where there are no fossil fuels and we don’t cut down trees to burn them. That’s my hope for the future.
Renée Bruel has been the Director of the Buildings Programme at the European Climate Foundation for the last four years and has worked with the ECF for the last ten years.
The European Climate Foundation (ECF) is a major philanthropic initiative working to help tackle the climate crisis by fostering the development of a net-zero emission society at the national, European, and global level. The programme for buildings within the European Climate Foundation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector in line with climate neutrality by reducing its energy demand through renovation of existing buildings, heat decarbonisation, and reducing the embodied carbon in buildings. This will put us on a path towards climate neutrality by 2050 for the building sector.
The IKEA Foundation is partnering with the European Climate Foundation because of our common goal of improving people’s lives and protecting our planet.