Heating in buildings is responsible for almost one‑third of total EU energy demand, and around 75% of heat is still produced by burning fossil fuels. The European Union must make decarbonising heat a major priority if it hopes to meet its climate goals for 2030 and beyond. Successful decarbonisation will require a well-coordinated effort across several areas — buildings, heating systems at both the individual and district level, the power sector and the existing heating fuel supply infrastructure.

In its vision for a Green Deal for Europe, the European Commission supports this transition by driving smart sector integration and a “renovation wave” for buildings. While the transformative challenge of clean heating is formidable, it is neither unattainable nor exorbitant. We can act now – and achieve more than we thought along the way.

Whichever low-carbon heat technology decision-makers choose, energy efficiency and electrification will play a fundamental role. Energy efficiency reduces heat demand and thereby the investment required to decarbonise heat. It also enables electrified buildings to serve as a flexible resource and to help low-carbon and zero-carbon heating systems operate at higher performance. By reducing demand for and the costs associated with zero-carbon heating, energy efficiency can also support a more socially equitable heat transformation.

On a power system level, efficient electrification creates flexible heating systems that can be managed to avoid the carbon-intensive peak hours. Combined with storage, it also supports intraseasonal balancing, particularly in colder climates. While hydrogen is currently expected to be a key vector for intraseasonal balancing, analysis finds that we may have more urgent need for this limited resource in other sectors.

Dr. Jan Rosenow and Dr. Richard Lowes have developed a suite of pragmatic principles to underpin Europe’s heat decarbonisation efforts:

  1. Put Efficiency First.
  2. Recognise the value of flexible heat load.
  3. Understand the emissions effects of changes in load.
  4. Design tariffs to reward flexibility.

To help policymakers meet the task at hand, we also offer a number of policy recommendations in line with the four smart heat principles:

  1. Step up energy efficiency building upgrades through more ambitious targets and policies.
  2. Phase out carbon-intensive heating systems.
  3. Phase out subsidies for fossil fuel-based heating systems.
  4. Implement well-designed and well-funded financing mechanisms for energy efficiency and low-carbon heat.
  5. Ensure fair distribution of costs among different fuels.
  6. Encourage the flexible use of heat through the introduction of time-varying prices.

None of these recommendations on its own can deliver accelerated heat decarbonisation at the scale needed to meet the climate targets. By applying them in a holistic approach, however, we will be able to decarbonise heat and unlock the many benefits that this transition can bring to the energy system and society as a whole.