About half of the EU’s final energy consumption goes to heating, making it a key focus area in Europe’s efforts to improve energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing, published this week, analyses this energy segment, urging investment in building renovations and modern renewable energy solutions.
Renovations and urgent phase-out of fossil fuels needed to decarbonise heating in Europe
Decarbonising heating represents one of the major challenges for Europe on the way to meeting climate targets for 2030 and 2050 and ensuring greater energy security. The EEA briefing ‘Decarbonising heating and cooling — a climate imperative’ looks at sectoral trends and calls for stronger policy efforts to reduce energy needs and switch to sustainable heating and cooling in all sectors. Together with the recent EEA briefing on sustainable cooling, the assessment highlights key opportunities and challenges in the race to make the EU carbon-neutral by 2050.
Energy renovation and conservation measures, including public information campaigns, have proven their efficiency in curbing overall heating and cooling needs, especially in buildings — the largest energy-consuming end-use sector across the EU. However, the EEA briefing reminds that energy efficiency measures alone are insufficient to decarbonise heating and cooling when fossil fuels are being used as the main energy source. In 2020, almost 80% of all household energy use regarded space and water heating, with over half of this energy being supplied by burning fossil fuels, notably gas. Investments in renewable and waste energy sources for heating and cooling are needed to reduce gas consumption, climate impacts and air pollution.
Local needs and opportunities
Data from Eurostat show that renewable energy accounted for less than a quarter of final energy used for heating and cooling in the EU in 2020. The northern EU countries, where buildings need more heating during winter months, had already reached more than 50% shares of renewable energy for heating and cooling in 2020 using large shares of biomass. But as heating and cooling systems last longer than a decade, replacing fossil fuels with biomass across all countries may have unwanted implications for this feedstock, climate and the environment. With the availability of sustainable energy resources and the demand for heating and cooling varying significantly across Europe, there is a need to prioritise the most sustainable local energy sources that correspond to local needs and opportunities, according to the EEA briefing.
The EEA briefing also notes that renewables for heating and cooling in Europe mostly still consist of solid biomass, such as wood, whereas other renewable options for heating and cooling are growing at much faster pace, including modern heat pumps and solar thermal collectors. Where available, modern, renewables-based district heating systems provide important opportunities for further decarbonisation, by acting as a platform for integrating a variety of clean energy solutions.
The European Commission has recently published a roadmap for policy support for heating and cooling decarbonisation in Europe.