Wednesday, September 21, 2022
In Europe about a quarter of the CO2 emissions, around 1 Gigaton per year, come from heating. That doesn't mean that every house in Europe is well heated: Europe has a large "excess winter mortality" rate, which is linked to a number of factors; in the UK alone, over three thousand deaths have been directly linked to energy poverty in 2018. Which is really bad news for the winter 2022/23, because energy prices in Europe for heating have skyrocketed. There are going to be a lot more people this winter dying from being unable to afford to properly heat their houses.
While this is currently a big political theme in many countries, with many governments having implemented energy price caps or subsidies, the matter is a complicated one. While there are many different heating systems with different energy efficiency, on a macroscopic level all the heat you pump into your house is eventually lost by dissipation to the outside. A theoretical perfectly insulated house would need no heating at all (not recommended, as it would also suffocate you). But in more practical terms, you can today build a house in Europe under nearly Zero Energy Building standards, and drastically diminish the amount of energy needed (and thus CO2 emitted) to keep your family warm. Even just adding insulation to existing homes can reduce heating energy needed by a quarter.
Theoretically the way forward is simple: We "just" need to insulate every building in Europe to the best energy efficiency (EPC) class of "A". However, that would mean upgrading 97% of the buildings in Europe. Buildings on average are older in Europe, because they are more often built with brick and mortar rather than wood. Brick houses are naturally better insulated, but it is more difficult to insulate an existing house than building a new one to EPC A. Insulation progress will take ages, and there is no way that we can improve the situation much by insulation in time for this winter.
One other problem with insulation is the incentives to do so. If you own the house you live in, high energy prices mean that the return on investment on insulating your house is quite good. However, home ownership rates differ by country. Insulation is something typically paid by the home owner, while the people living in the house pay for the heating. So with rented property, the home owner isn't necessarily highly motivated to insulate, because it isn't him who is saving the money on heating. Understanding that, Europe is now slowly forcing everybody to increase the energy efficiency of their buildings, but that is a program spanning 3 decades until 2050.
While the current political discussion about heating is caused by an energy crisis mostly related to the Ukraine war, this isn't something that is going away. The reason that we mostly heat with fossil fuels is that this has for a long time been the cheapest method, because the "cost" of CO2 emissions simply wasn't accounted for. Fighting climate change is rather likely to increase the price of energy for consumers. And for poor people the percentage of their budget spent on energy for transport and heating is higher than for rich people. So the problem of high energy prices and energy poverty is likely to stay with us. We need to find a way to both save the planet *and* not have poor people freezing to death in their houses.