Fossil-fuel fever: EU building law loophole risks keeping gas boilers in our homes

Due to go to vote on 14 March, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive risks being a gift to the fossil fuel industry at the cost of Europe’s independence, urgent climate goals, and citizens’ energy security.

From sourcing materials to everyday heating, our built environment has a significant impact on our CO2 emissions and energy use, and a huge potential to contribute to a climate neutral EU: in Europe, buildings account for around 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions. Dubbed the ‘EU green building law’, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is tasked with the enormous yet essential goal of decarbonising Europe’s building stocks – 75% of which are currently energy inefficient.

Having now passed the negotiation phase within the European Parliament, the file now awaits a vote in Strasbourg, with mixed signals towards a zero-emission future for European buildings.

Fossil fuel heating: Europe’s ball and chain

The EU’s heating and cooling needs accounted for half of its total gross final energy consumption, a large majority of which depends on fossil fuel energy. That is why the European Environmental Agency has underlined the decarbonisation of heating and cooling as a “climate imperative”. However, with a new fossil boiler installed every eight seconds and each staying in use for over 20 years, the challenge of decarbonising Europe becomes mission impossible without a plan to phase out fossil heating.

Unfortunately, following a last-minute addition, the EPBD text currently supports an unlimited and indefinite use of fossil fuel to heat EU buildings as long as it can disguise itself as “hybrid systems” – crumbling any hope of meeting the EU’s 2030 climate goals. This is allowed by a convenient loophole for fossil boilers to stall its evictions indefinitely as long as they are declared compatible with any future mix of hydrogen or biogas, even as little as 1%, a plan that sings to the unrealistic and unsustainable tune of hydrogen energy.

“The pressure of the fossil gas lobby has managed to keep gas boilers back in the picture, disguised as a climate solution that will run on future – unrealistic and even more expensive- hydrogen or other alternative gases. In reality, people will burn fossil gas to keep warm for 15 more years, even in their new or renovated homes.” 

Davide Sabbadin, Deputy Policy Manager for Climate, European Environmental Bureau

Without a proper and ambitious phase-out of fossil fuels from heating as early as 2027, policymakers are keeping citizens at risk of expensive energy bills, burdening them with direct financial and health costs of air pollution, in addition to the indirect impacts of a climate crisis they are unwittingly contributing to.

A well-supported transition towards 100% renewable heating, not greenwashing solutions, represents a golden opportunity to sharply reduce EU dependence on oil and gas lords, protect their citizens from sky-high energy bills and future crises, all for a few more years of fossil fuel companies’ profits. Members of European Parliament must urgently reel back this decision and re-instate the gas boilers incompatibility with new and renovated dwellings before the file goes to vote in plenary in March.

Some progress made

The step backward in fossil fuel heating is an odd-one-out when compared to other key climate asks of the EPBD, which has otherwise made great advancements in ensuring more sustainable buildings in the EU.

The text agreed on in the Committee for Industry, Research, and Energy (ITRE) has taken a large decarbonising leap forward with an ambitious provision on Whole Life Carbon – a result of hard negotiations from the file’s Greens rapporteur Ciarán Cuffe. This means buildings’ energy consumption and emissions will be tracked well beyond everyday operations, and climate measures will be applied to all phases from manufacturing until the end-of-life.

Finally, addressing the exposure to energy crises faced by the 75% of EU buildings that are currently energy inefficient, the text has also set minimum energy performance standards for buildings, which would prompt national plans to support the renovations of worst-performing homes and lowest income households. This would insulate citizens from future energy crises and minimise the spread of energy poverty. While the level of ambitions has been raised from European Commission’s proposal, the standards fall somewhat short of Ciarán Cuffe’s initial report after rounds of pushback from conservatives.

Getting the house in order

Entering the final European Parliament vote and national negotiations now, policymakers must equip the EPBD with the right tools to rid Europe of our fossil fuel dependency, ensure better quality housings, and reduce our resource use. With its ability to transform a heavy-emitting sector, the Parliament must showcase to national governments the full potential of the EPBD – a powerful tool to transform Europe’s energy use in full commitment to the ambitions of a climate neutral, fair and independent EU.