Gas boilers deserve an ‘F’, not an ‘A’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Fossil gas boilers may continue to be labelled ‘green’ for another decade or so if EU leaders fail to review energy labelling rules for heating appliances within a year. This would be very bad news for an overheating world, write Davide Sabbadin and Melissa Zill.

Davide Sabbadin is a policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). Melissa Zill is programme manager at ECOS. Together, the EEB and ECOS lead the Coolproducts campaign – a coalition of NGOs working to ensure better products for consumers and the planet. 

Europe’s heating and cooling is a climate time bomb, with the sector responsible for almost half of the EU’s energy consumption and a third of its CO2 emissions.

Ageing buildings bear much of the blame, with a large part of the energy used to heat our homes going to waste due to poor insulation. A wave of deep renovation is desperately needed, but that is not the whole story.

In Brussels’ policy circles, many are sounding the alarm bells over the continued installation and use of fossil fuel boilers – some of which are labelled ‘green’ without any technical or scientific justification.

Confusing labels and vested interests

Since 2015, energy labels on many fossil gas boilers have misleadingly displayed green A ratings – a symbol of high environmental performance which is generally associated with climate friendly products.

This is largely due to bad decision-making. Back in 2010, the Commission had temporarily adopted a new labelling system for home appliances which added confusing plusses to the then popular A to G scale. This meant the inclusion of three additional marks: A+++, A++, A+, with A being the fourth lowest rating before B, C and D.

This labelling system was and still is very confusing and unfair, according to recent surveys. Suddenly, the A rating went from being associated with top-class energy efficient products to promoting some of the most polluting home appliances.

This has come at the expense of consumers and truly green solutions. Heat pumps and solar panels – all rated A+ or above – are more efficient than a class A gas boiler, yet their labels are not as appealing to consumers who may still consider any class A product top notch.

EU institutions realised this was a mistake in 2017 and decided to revert to the original and clearer A to G scale. However, the switch will only start next year, and it will not apply to labels displayed on domestic heating appliances just yet.

The gas industry may have had something to do with this strange decision. They argued that the current A rating would incentivise consumers to switch from old non-condensing gas boilers to condensing units, which can be up to 30% more energy efficient.

While more efficient, the reality is both condensing and non-condensing gas boilers rely on fossil fuels. In other words, they are incompatible with Europe’s plans for climate neutrality.

Empowering consumers and meeting climate targets

Our institutions must do their part and revise energy labels downwards as soon as possible if they are serious about climate action. Class F or G would be appropriate for a gas boiler, while top marks such as B should be given exclusively to renewables-based appliances such as solar power systems and heat pumps.

In accordance with the energy labelling regulation and as a way of spurring innovation, A marks would then be reserved for the latest products which are more efficient than current ones available in the market.

Now, a revision of the regulation for space and water heaters is ongoing. However, the rescaling of the labels is not being considered at this stage. An additional revision is expected to take place in the coming years, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

The postponement of the discussions, combined with the time needed to revise the law and prepare the market, means that the labels are unlikely to change before 2030 at the earliest – when the EU is expected to have met its 2030 reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of the long lifespans of heating appliances – over 20 years for a gas boiler – the delays would also jeopardise efforts to reach climate neutrality by 2050.

We, as campaigners, urge the Commission to proceed with an in-depth revision of the labelling regulation. Instead of having two lengthy back-to-back revisions, the A to G scale should be introduced as soon as possible, with a view to applying the new labels at a later date in order to give manufacturers enough time to adapt their products to the new labels.

Most importantly, an early adoption of the A to G scale would pave the way for a gradual phase-out of fossil fuel boilers rated F and G. The end goal should be to ban the sale of all fossil fuel-fired boilers in Europe by 2030, which is one of the main conditions to meet our climate objectives.

A comprehensive approach to decarbonisation

The road to the decarbonisation of domestic heating is long and, given the magnitude of the problem, there is no one-fits-all solution.

The European Commission has already made the renovation of buildings one of its top priorities. In the proposed post-coronavirus recovery fund, President von der Leyen promised to invest billions of euro in making our homes and offices more energy efficient.

While necessary, this approach alone is doomed to fail if governments and institutions refuse to plan their way out of gas heating – and that is when labels come into play.

Together with the right financial incentives and the internalisation of externalities in the price of gas, a fairer labelling system can steer the market towards clean solutions such as renewable electricity, heat pumps and fossil fuel-free district heating.

Little by little, it will boost Europe’s plans for climate neutrality and clean heating – neither of which are achievable if we continue selling and installing fossil gas boilers. It is time for our policymakers to embrace all positive solutions and ditch toxic habits before it is too late.

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