Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Clearing the air around domestic heating emissions

By allowing Germany to apply stricter emissions limits for home heating appliances than the European eco-design standards, the EU is sending an important signal that public health and nature come first.

Roberta Arbinolo speaks to German environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe about Germany’s stricter standards and why Europe needs more ambition.

Domestic heating is a major source of air pollution. From fossil fuels such as coal and gas to biomass, the materials we burn to warm up our homes are responsible for the largest share of particulate matter in the air we breathe.

The EU Eco-design directive addresses air pollution from household boilers and stoves by setting common standards to cut dangerous emissions. However, Germany has recently obtained the European Commission’s green light to keep enforcing their pre-existing, more ambitious national limits.

We asked our members Hannah von Blumröder and Patrick Huth, project managers on air quality at Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V., what this means for air quality standards in Germany and beyond.

Why is this decision important?

The new Eco-design requirements for boilers and stoves set EU-wide minimum standards for both efficiency and emissions which are meant to replace pre-existing national legislation. This is a step forward in many member states with no effective emission limits for solid fuel appliances.

However, in Germany, the introduction of the Eco-design emission limits for solid fuel boilers would have meant a step back. The Commission’s decision to allow Germany to keep its pre-existing emission standards is an important sign, as it puts people’s health and the environment first.

What led Germany to make this request, and what were the main challenges?

Weakening national provisions to apply the less strict Eco-Design standards would have resulted in increased emissions from solid fuel boilers. The government claimed that Germany would not have been able to meet the EU reduction targets for particulate matter, as demanded by the National Emission Ceilings Directive, without keeping its pre-existing, stricter provisions. 

Although the Commission has now accepted the German request to keep its national standards, the country’s compliance with the EU reduction targets for particulate matter is still at stake. The German National Energy and Climate Plan requires the share of renewable heat to increase from the current 14% to 27% by 2030.

However, if this is achieved mainly by burning wood, as has been the case to date, the emission of particulate matter may significantly increase well beyond the targets set under the NEC Directive. This is one reason why we took legal action to push the German government to take further measures to reduce air pollutants.

The main challenge was to prove that an exception to the internal market rules is justified by the need to protect our health and ecosystems. In addition, it was important to show that the pre-existing stricter provisions affect domestic and EU manufacturers of boilers in the same way, and do not represent a market distortion.

Does this mean that EU Eco-design standards are not ambitious enough in terms of air quality?

They are definitely not ambitious enough. Domestic heating is the main source of particle emissions in the EU. Nearly 400,000 premature deaths every year are attributed to air pollution with fine particles. This clearly shows that the emission standards for solid fuel appliances need to be tightened substantially. In particular, without stricter standards, the EU zero-pollution ambition will not be achieved.

Even new stoves and boilers sold in the EU or in Germany emit far more particles than a diesel car with a filter. So, the question is: why has no bold action been taken yet to reduce air pollution from domestic heating?

Germany has introduced the ‘Blue Angel’ label. What is it, and could it inspire other member states?

Stoves are the main culprits when looking at emissions from domestic heating. To establish low-emission technology for this type of appliance, we pushed for a new eco-label. This is based on the Blue Angel, the most well-known and trusted voluntary eco-label in Germany. 

To get the Blue Angel certification, a stove must go through a more realistic test procedure, including measurement of the number of particles emitted. The label sets very ambitious emission limit values that will make precipitators or filters mandatory. Furthermore, the label includes effective technical provisions to reduce operating errors, such as an automatic combustion air control.

We expect first appliances to be sold with the new eco-label in 2020. This will help guide purchasing decisions of consumers, but the eco-label should also serve as a minimum standard for stoves being operated in residential areas. It should be the blueprint for the revision of European standards.

What does this decision mean for the general public? What can we all learn from this story?

The Commission’s decision and its legal background is a very complex issue, and one for which it is hard to raise public awareness.

In general, emissions from domestic heating are still disregarded in the public debate. Thus, it is all the more important that we as environmental NGOs raise our voice and become active representatives of civil society.

Together with NGO partners of the EEB network, we supported Germany’s request to keep stricter national provisions. For instance, we provided several position papers in which we highlighted the importance of having ambitious limit values to protect people’s health and the environment. In the end, this has led to a good decision by the Commission.

Now we need to focus on the future Eco-design standards that will be revised in the coming years. There is a risk that the lack of awareness will lead to a lack of ambition – and that the new standards will be solely based on the proposals by the industry.