Overline: The Neglected Energy Transition in the Heating Sector
Headline: Germany’s New Building Energy Act is a Missed Opportunity

Solarpanels Windenergy energy transition
Thanks to plummeting prices for electricity from renewables, the energy transition has taken off in the electricity sector. Shutterstock/ artjazz

The energy transition in the electricity sector is up and running thanks to plummeting prices for electricity generated from renewables. It has also been at the forefront of recent public debates on the coal exit and minimum distance rules for wind turbines. But it is the heating sector that accounts for most of Germany’s energy consumption: According to the German Environment Agency, building heating alone represents around 32 per cent of the country’s total energy consumption. So the energy transition in the heating sector is a key arena for successful climate protection. The Building Energy Act (Gebäudeenergiegesetz) adopted by the German Bundestag on 18 June explicitly refers to the need for action in this sector.

Debates on transformation processes like the heating or transport transition tend to revolve around technological innovations such as heating pumps or e-cars. But it takes more than technological changes to bring about a fundamental transformation in complex societal systems like heating supply, in the same way that e-cars alone will not make a successful transport transition. In the heating sector, systemic change can only arise from the interplay of products (e.g. environmentally friendly facade insulation), infrastructure (e.g. district heating grids), policy instruments (e.g. efficiency standards and energy refurbishment grants), social norms (e.g. prioritisation of climate protection), and behaviour (e.g. new heating habits).

A complete decarbonisation of this sector can only be achieved through an integrated policy approach that addresses all of these dimensions. There’s nothing new about this approach: Alongside technology support and economic instruments, German heating sector decarbonisation policy has for years relied on energy advice to encourage investment decisions that diverge from the traditional – fossil-based – technology path.

However, as we show in a comparative study of heating sector governance in Germany and the UK,  German heating policy hasn’t yet gone far enough. Both countries aim to achieve a “virtually climate-neutral” building stock by 2050, as envisaged in the German government’s plans for a highly efficient and liveable building stock connected by heat grids. But the government’s efforts to realise this vision have so far focussed on increasing the efficiency of the existing system. The transition to a climate-neutral heating supply and the different steps on the path to that goal haven't yet been fleshed out. The UK had gone a step further in this regard: zero-carbon building standards for new buildings, broad state support for efficiency measures in the building stock, and a planned sequence of measures were all intended to achieve emissions reduction targets. But many of these instruments were subsequently scrapped.

From this perspective, Germany’s new Building Energy Act is a step in the right direction. It contains a number of important measures like the expansion of energy advice to support homeowners with investment decisions, and a ban on the installation of oil heating systems from 2026, since these are a major source of carbon emissions. Heating technologies based on coal, oil and gas have no place in a “virtually climate-neutral” building stock. Given the long investment cycles involved, the ban on installing such fossil-based heating systems is to come into force well before 2050. In addition, the role public buildings play in setting an example is to be strengthened by ensuring that they meet more than just the minimum statutory requirements for energy efficiency.
However, from the perspective of Transformative Environmental Policy – the analytical framework we use in our comparative study – the Building Energy Act fails to deliver in a number of key areas. For example, the ban on installing oil heating systems will only come into force in 2026, with exemptions still possible after that date. Thus oil heating systems will continue to be used well into the 2040s. One particularly problematic aspect of the new law is the fact that existing energy efficiency standards for new buildings have not been raised. That means that any building projects planned now will have to undergo energy efficiency refurbishments before 2050 in order to approach climate neutrality. A more systemic approach to decarbonising the heating sector would consider energy consumption and emissions not only in the usage phase, but also in the production of building materials and during construction. The Building Energy Act merely stipulates that the possibility of such regulation be assessed.

The decarbonisation of our energy systems is a long-term, complex process in which the heating sector is often neglected despite its huge significance. Our analysis shows that the policy strategies of Germany and the UK don’t come close to fulfilling the requirements for a fundamental socio-technical transformation of the heating supply. While the new Building Energy Act brings progress on a number of fronts, it is not enough to put Germany on a path to a virtually climate-neutral building stock.

Leonard Frank worked for the IASS project Pathways to a Sustainable Energy Supply from October 2018 to June 2019 and is currently a research associate at the Chair of Environmental Governance at the University of Freiburg.

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