This article is part of our special report Heating and cooling.
The European Union’s fight against global warming is doomed to fail unless decisive action is taken to change the way we heat and cool our buildings.
Under the landmark United Nations Paris Agreement, the EU is committed to curbing worldwide temperatures at no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
The heating and cooling systems used in buildings and in industry demand special attention from national and European policymakers mindful of the promises they made in Paris.
Although the pact, signed by 195 nations, was weakened by US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out, that has only made the EU more determined to take on the mantle of global climate leaders.
Heating and cooling of buildings and industry is responsible for half of the EU’s energy consumption, and, according to the European Commission, “much of it is wasted”.
In EU households, for example, heating and hot water make up about 79% of energy use. On average, Europeans spend 6% of their expenditure on heating and cooling.
84% of heating and cooling is still powered by polluting fossil fuels, which heaps greater pressure on the EU’s carbon limits. Nearly half of the energy used comes from burning gas.
While cooling is a relatively small proportion of energy use, it is increasing. Ironically it is increasing because of the greater temperatures caused by global warming.
“In order to fulfill the EU’s climate and energy goals, the heating and cooling sector must sharply reduce its energy consumption and cut its use of fossil fuels,” the European Commission says.
Only 16% of heating and cooling power across the EU comes from clean renewable energy. But since Paris, the share of renewables on the EU energy market has increased.
The bloc’s 2030 climate and energy goals aim to cut emissions by at least 40%, and boost renewables and energy efficiency by at least 27%.
The goals, struck relative to 1990 levels, were the basis of the bloc’s negotiating position at the Paris climate talks.
After the success of the Paris Agreement, those targets are currently under negotiation by EU lawmakers with a view to making them more robust.
The Renewable Energy Directive is currently being amended in the European Parliament. Lead MEP on the bill Spanish Socialist José Blanco López (S&D), has called for it to be strengthened to at least 35%.
He also demands that the targets are made binding as the 2020 goals were. In 2014, EU leaders, jealous of the sovereignty over their own energy mix, were opposed to binding targets being set at national level.
But those binding targets are also credited with helping to drive the EU’s shift away from fossil fuels. In 2016, almost 90% of new power in Europe came from renewable sources. Wind overtook coal as the second largest form of capacity.
The report will form the basis of the Parliament’s negotiating position with the Commission and Council. If it results in increasing the obligation to boost renewables, then national governments will be further incentivised to look at heating and cooling.
Acting on the decarbonisation of the heating and cooling sectors will not only cut emissions but also provide greater demand for renewables, incentivising a greater share of clean energy on the market.
Heating and cooling strategy
In February 2016, the Commission launched the first ever EU decarbonisation strategy for the heating and cooling sector.
It does not put forward hard rules for member states to transpose into national law. However, such communications are frequently followed up by binding legislation from Brussels.
The Commission says that the strategy is a key part of the flagship Energy Union plan, which aims to slash both emissions and the EU’s dependence on imports.
“Developing a strategy to make heating and cooling more efficient and sustainable is a priority for the Energy Union,” the Commission said in its communication on the issue.
The Energy Union strategy has targeted the renovation of the EU’s building stock to meet its twin goals.
Two thirds of the EU’s buildings were built before energy efficiency requirements were introduced or were at a very early stage. As result, 75% of the bloc’s buildings are inefficient, which leads to waste, greater energy consumption and so higher carbon emissions, the Commission argues.
European Commission research has found that most of these buildings would still be standing in 2050, which strengthens the arguments for energy efficient renovation.
The EU wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 95%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2050.
Experts argue that waves of energy efficient renovation across Europe could give the economy a much-needed fillip, as well increase the value of homes and reduce energy poverty. Despite that, the annual rate of building renovation across the EU is a sluggish 1%.
Inefficient buildings lose heat more quickly and are more difficult to cool. Much can be done to boost the energy efficiency of buildings and reduce consumption through technology such as smart meters, double glazing and insulation.
Introducing a new heating or cooling system is a major investment but can be cheaper if planned as part of a stage of wider renovations.
The renovation is an opportunity to shift away from gas to technology such as heat pumps, geothermal heating or waste heat.
Heating and cooling technology businesses, such as Danfoss, insist that the technology to decarbonise the sector exists. All that is missing is the policy.
European Parliament lawmakers are currently debating how best to use the draft revised Energy Performance in Buildings Directive to convince homeowners to plan such renovations.
Almost half of the EU’s buildings have individual boilers installed before 1992, with efficiency of 60% or less, according to the Commission.
The EU is currently revising three directives that could help drive more renewable-based and efficient heating and cooling systems in Europe.
The Energy Performance in Buildings Directive, the Energy Efficiency Directive and Renewable Energy Directive all touch on the sector.
The three bills were put forward in the Commission’s gigantic winter package earlier this year. All are currently being amended and negotiated by MEPs and the EU’s member states.
They can only become law when both Parliament and Council agree an identical text so there is still plenty of horsetrading ahead both between the member states themselves and the institutions.
The lead MEP on the EPBD, the Danish Christian Democrat Bendt Bendtsen (EPP), is understood to favour incentivising the pickup of building logbooks to improve renovation planning.
The Commission has pushed for ways to accelerate the replacement of obsolete fossil fuel boilers, and increase renewable energy deployment in district heating.
The existing Energy Efficiency Directive requires national governments to set our action plans to reduce heating and cooling demand, as well as national building renovation strategies.
However, such initiatives have been dogged by poor implementation at national level with numerous infringement proceedings being launched against laggardly member states.
Despite that, Energy Union chief Maroš Šefčovič has said that the Paris Agreement would mean that member states would finally live up to their responsibilities.
But with huge variances in culture, building stock, political will and even temperature across the EU, policymakers face a huge challenge.
This week’s special report will investigate different ways policymakers and other stakeholders are looking to meet the tricky challenge of decarbonising the sector.