Heating and cooling

07 Jul 21

EU Commission paralysis delays phase-out of fossil fuel boilers

The European Commission’s lack of ambition in phasing out fossil fuel heating systems is jeopardising frontrunners and rewarding laggards, endangering everyone’s climate ambition. 

Read our full analysis in our background briefing

Time is running out for the European Union to decarbonise the heating sector, which accounts for 12% of total CO2 emissions in Europe. So far, the Commission has shown a disappointing lack of ambition in their actions aiming to end the installation of fossil-fuel boilers in European buildings as of 2025. This deadline is approaching, and it is non-negotiable: if we keep installing boilers after this date, they will remain in service beyond 2050, when the EU should already be climate-neutral (see our 2020 report and the ‘Net Zero by 2050’ report from the International Energy Agency).

The Commission should publish draft revised regulations for ecodesign and energy labelling of space heaters at the end of July. These regulations are the most obvious tool to phase out fossil-fuel boilers from the EU market, but if the drafts are unambitious, they will penalise all EU Member States – both the frontrunners and the laggards. 

If things do not go the right way, European frontrunners wishing to remove oil and gas boilers from their markets and meet their climate goals will be obliged to bend the EU regulations for heaters. Because Member States need to notify the European Commission before applying stricter requirements at national level, it is difficult for ambitious countries to ban certain types of heaters if they are still allowed in the rest of the EU. For instance, the Danish Energy Agency is conducting a legal analysis exploring ways to limit and potentially phase out the use of oil in heating, while complying with EU regulations.

On the other hand, governments lagging behind would benefit from a wake-up call from Brussels, nudging capitals to set a minimum ambition in their fossil-fuel heating policies, coherent with their climate objectives. Today, many countries still have no concrete plan or timeline to phase out fossil fuel fired heating technologies. Clear and ambitious rules applied at EU level would avoid locking consumers into polluting technologies.

The boldness shown by the Commission in its climate ambition risks clashing with the direction the EU is taking when regulating space heaters, putting the capacity of Member States to reach their own climate objectives at risk. CO2 emissions from space and water heating represent 12% of the total EU emissions, as much as all cars in Europe combined. A clear signal from Brussels to decarbonise heating is vital to achieve the EU’s 55% emission reduction target and climate neutrality objective by 2050. Heating is just too important to be ignored.   

Heating decarbonisation: what is the ambition of Member States in their National Energy and Climate Plans?

Out of the 28 European countries analysed by Coolproducts campaigners (all EU states and Norway), at least 13 already have a strategy to decarbonise heating systems in their National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs). These plans include measures focusing on either the type of fuel to be banned (oil, gas) or the type of infrastructure in which polluting boilers will be banned (new buildings, existing buildings, residential, tertiary).

Eight European countries have already announced they intend to fully phase out all types of fossil-fuel heating systems by 2050. Sweden, Finland, Denmark, France, Austria, Belgium, and The Netherlands did not feel the need to wait and see how ambitious the European Commission would be in its revision of ecodesign and energy labelling rules for boilers.

A number of EU Member States could draw inspiration from the frontrunners. Take a look at some of the best practices here below – they all show different strategies, depending on the specificity of the country itself. They also illustrate that impossible is nothing if priorities are in the right place.

Pioneers from the north

Countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway have been shifting away from fossil fuel-based home heating for decades. Historically, this is due to energy security concerns but recently such trends are rather driven by climate policy goals. Decarbonising district heating systems is the main challenge in Finland and Denmark, while Swedish heating is already almost fully decarbonised.

Denmark is a pioneer country. It banned the installation of oil-fired boilers and natural gas heating in new buildings already in 2013. It now relies on subsidies to support the transition for existing buildings (42 million Danish crowns, ~ € 5.6 million). Norway is a distinct case as it has a low-carbon and almost completely electrified heating sector. Norwegian homeowners had to replace their oil boilers following a ban introduced by the government on the use of fossil fuels in residential heating as of 2020.

A two-lever approach

France relies much more on individual heating systems. To phase out oil and gas boilers, France has decided to explore two different levers: a maximum threshold of CO2/m2/year, which is not to be exceeded, and a gradual entry into force of a ban, as explained in a draft decree

  • A threshold will be set at 4 kgCO2/m2/year from 1st January 2022 for single-family homes and at 14 kgCO2/m²/year between 2022 and 2025 for collective housing. In addition, from January 2022 it will be strictly forbidden to install oil-fired boilers in new homes.
  • The years 2022 to 2024 will serve as a learning period. The threshold will become increasingly demanding over time. By 2024, France aims at a 15% reduction in CO2 emissions from heating compared to the current level; by 2027, a 25% reduction; and by 2030, between 30% and 40% less emissions.

Going gas-free

The Netherlands relies on a gas grid. However, as of 2018 new buildings are not allowed to connect to the gas grid (unless they apply for an exception when processing permits). The transition has gone smoothly, from around 35-40% of disconnected new buildings in 2017, to 75% in 2019 and now to over 90%. Buyers of new buildings are eligible for government loans to make their dwelling ‘gas-free’, e.g. through extra insulation or solar panels in combination with a heat pump. After 2025 the necessity of banning gas-boilers will be revisited.

2026: a turning point for European citizens

Thankfully, the 8 countries which have already committed to a ban are not the only ones acting. We have calculated that, by 2026, more than half of the EU’s population (~ 222 500 000 inhabitants) will live in a country that is either entirely or partially phasing out fossil fuel heating. Out of the 27 EU Member States, 13 will have enforced at least one national ban on either oil- or gas-fired heating systems, or both. These countries are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, and Sweden.

If the Commission’s ambition for the revision of the ecodesign and energy labelling regulations for space heaters remains low, it will not only compel countries wanting to achieve more and faster. It will also endanger everyone’s climate goals. The European Commission must set a minimum ambition that is coherent with its own climate objectives, while giving a strong signal to manufacturers that some technologies need to disappear. Otherwise, the average result for the EU will be mediocre at best, with the least ambitious countries dragging the frontrunners down. The planet will foot the bill.

EU countries ambition, at a glance

Read our full analysis in our background briefing