Fossil or Fair: Will EU’s Heating Policy Delay or Accelerate Sustainable Energy Justice?

Phasing out archaic fossil heating systems in favour of cleaner options is a must in Europe’s quest to cut energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. But only one year on from REPowerEU, European lawmakers risk backpedalling on their commitments to a fossil-free future in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and ecodesign rules for space and water heaters. This is a hit-or-miss moment. EU law must not allow any loopholes or exemptions that would open the way for dangerous fossil fuels to crowd out investments in a clean future.

Michael Neaves is the Programme Manager for buildings at ECOS and Davide Sabbadin is the deputy policy manager for climate at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). The two organisations jointly lead the Coolproducts campaign – a coalition of NGOs working to ensure better products for consumers and the planet.

Heating and cooling our buildings accounts for over one third of the EU’s energy consumption and emissions. Decisions on heating and cooling affect the bloc’s energy access, affordability, security, and sustainability. Since 2021, the consequences of inadequate energy policies have never been as stark. Europe’s overreliance on fossil fuels for heating worsens indoor air quality, causes millions to struggle with sky-high energy bills, and has left EU Member States with weakened national security. 2021 was also the first year in almost a decade when emissions increased – a cause for serious concern regarding EU climate commitments.

We do not have to continue this way. Potential solutions are being developed by the EU – but the high environmental ambition of both the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and ecodesign rules for space and water heaters are on thin ice.

Industry tactics to divide and conquer

In March, the European Parliament took the necessary step of endorsing an immediate ban on the installation of new fossil fuel boilers through the EPBD. However, a concerning exemption has emerged following intense pressure from the gas lobby, granting reprieve to “boilers certified to run on renewable fuels“. This exemption has outraged environmental experts and advocates, because it will put the brakes on Europe’s transition to clean, homegrown renewable energy.

Almost all existing gas boilers can obtain certification for using renewables, even at very low levels. This means that a simple “hydrogen-ready” label could serve as a free-pass, allowing the installation of fossil fuelled technologies that would have otherwise been phased out under ecodesign rules. With gas boilers shown to be the most expensive heating technology by the European consumer organisation BEUC, each installation locks in homeowners and tenants to gas use for decades.

Fault lines are also emerging in the development of ecodesign rules for space and water heaters, which the European Commission has been consulting on in recent months. First adopted in 2013, these rules could prevent new ‘stand-alone’ fossil fuel boilers from being sold and installed in the EU because they are much less energy efficient than other, renewable solutions. This would complement the EPBD by helping to gradually remove the worst products from the market. But exemptions have been hinted at throughout the revision process that could weaken revised heating legislation.

Together, ecodesign rules and the EPBD were envisaged as a harmonious pairing, working in tandem to phase out polluting technologies and usher in an era of clean and renewable heating. With the EPBD potentially veering off course, ecodesign rules would be left alone to protect Europe’s transition to renewable heating. But with similar pushback from vested industry stakeholders and Member States threatening the development of strong environmental principles in the revised rules, Europe’s sustainable energy future looks disappointingly distant.

EU citizens cannot afford such a regulatory failure. Urgent action is needed from policymakers to defend against nefarious industry tactics and close all dangerous loopholes that will block Europe’s trajectory towards the sustainable and low-carbon future foreseen by REPowerEU.

Policymakers at a crossroads, with only one route out of fossil fuel dependency

It is vital that the EPBD and ecodesign rules are aligned. Synchronisation will maximise coherence within the Green Deal and provide the necessary impetus for the clean energy transition to proceed swiftly.

During the ongoing EPBD trilogues, policymakers must forge a compromise that eliminates deceptive loopholes, saving consumers from the unnecessary expenses and emissions tied to gas boilers of any kind, renewable-ready or not. Hybrid systems that partially depend on fossil energy should be restricted to only those cases where a fully-fledged electric heat pump cannot be installed.

Similarly, in its pending ecodesign rules for space and water heaters, the European Commission must take care not to allow any exemptions which prevent the phase-out of sales of new fossil fuel boilers.

Such decisive action would mark a watershed moment in the elimination of fossil fuels from buildings and the wider economy, underscoring the EU’s unwavering leadership amidst multiple fossil-fueled crises. It would also signal continued support for the socio-economic and environmental objectives outlined in the REPowerEU plan.

On home heating, the choice European policymakers are facing is clear: is the future fossil and unjust, or sustainable and fair?