03 June 2021

‘Flemish cities hope to set an example and motivate others to tackle the heating problem head on’ – interview with Bond Beter Leefmilieu

By Ivo Cabral

Earlier this year, eight cities in the Belgian region of Flanders signed a manifesto committing to fossil-free heating in all homes by 2050. Citizens will be encouraged to join heat networks or install heat pumps, among other zero-emission solutions, contributing to the phase-out of natural gas and fossil fuels. Angelos Koutsis, energy policy officer at the Belgian NGO Bond Beter Leefmilieu, explains how this action came to life.

A complete phase-out of fossil fuel heating in Flemish homes by 2050: a simple yet very ambitious promise made by eight cities in March 2021. Beersel, Bruges, Ghent, Kortrijk, Leuven, Mechelen, Ostend, and Turnhout, with more than 780,000 inhabitants, all demand support and coordinated action from the Flemish authorities in order to make home heating 100% renewable in the whole region. The challenge seems daunting: today, more than 90% of homes in Flanders are heated with natural gas or oil.

The action, which made headlines in Belgian media, was coordinated by Bond Beter Leefmilieu, our Belgian member with 50 years of experience advocating for ambitious environmental policies. Angelos Koutsis explains to ECOS why this action is so important in advancing towards an environmentally sustainable society.

To reach the goal of a zero-emission home heating for all in 2050, 100 000 households will need to switch to renewables in Flanders every year. You describe the challenge as ‘a titanic job’. Is it really feasible? Why is it so difficult to get rid of gas?

It is feasible, but only if both regional and federal governments take strong measures to phase out oil and natural gas in heating. At the same time, they should stimulate refurbishment [of buildings] and renewable heating solutions based on heat pumps and district heating. Fundamental changes are needed: a tax shift from electricity to fossil fuels; a mandatory renovation when buying, inheriting or renting out a house; and a prefinancing strategy for renovations for those who cannot afford the upfront costs. Deep renovations are crucial in order to reduce heat demand, otherwise we risk that heat pumps become less efficient, resulting in unnecessarily high electricity bills for households. We know what all the necessary measures to enable heating with renewable energy are; the only key point missing is thorough governmental action.

 

What role can cities play in the transition to a climate-neutral heating?

Cities have an important role to play in this transition. They are closest to their citizens and can stimulate them to renovate and insulate their houses. They can also offer them advice on which renewable heating solution is best suited to their needs. They can organise and facilitate collective renovations in targeted neighbourhoods.

Because of the high density of dwellings in city centres, district heating is, overall, more cost-effective than individual renewable heating solutions. In many cases, available waste heat from industrial sites could be used to feed them. Cities and municipalities can develop heat zoning plans and give a long-term perspective to households and businesses.

 

Was it easy to get cities on board with the plea?

The plea for a more ambitious Flemish heat policy was signed by 8 pioneering cities, leading the way and showing others that it is possible to set ambitious goals and take action. The cities involved were eager to get on board since they all recognise their responsibility in climate action. Furthermore, they hope to set an example for other cities and villages and motivate them to tackle this problem head on and not just wait for more action from the Flanders regional level.

 

What should governments do to boost the switch to renewable heating?

Together with the cities that signed the plea, we are asking our government to take the following three actions:

  1. Implement a tax shift from electricity to natural gas and heating oil, in order to make heat pumps and district heating more attractive than gas.
  2. Create clarity on how exactly Flanders will achieve the transition to heating its buildings without the use of natural gas and oil by 2050. Communicate this path clearly and give the municipalities the direction of the implementation.
  3. Give families, companies and local governments the right support, guidance and means to finalise their departure from natural gas and oil.

Heat pumps, district heating, solar-thermal technologies… There are plenty of different technological solutions on the table. Which one should be the main technology for people to instal in their homes to replace fossil fuels?

Picking just one is a difficult decision, and there is a clear risk of oversimplifying the solutions. In city centres, district heating should be our first choice in combination with renewable heating like waste heat, geothermal heat, heat pumps, and aquathermal to feed the network. In the case of remote dwellings or scattered villages, private heat pumps are our best bet. In general, heat pumps will be an important technology either used in district heating or in private dwellings.

What actions is your alliance planning for the coming months?  Are you planning to organise any campaigns at national level, including cities from other parts of Belgium?

We would like to expand the alliance of cities and municipalities campaigning for an ambitious and sustainable heating policy. But we will also encourage them to take up responsibility as shareholders of the energy grid operators in Belgium. They should voice their concerns and ensure that investment plans of Fluxys [gas transmission system operator] and Fluvius [electricity and gas operator] are in line with the Paris Agreement goals and with the goals of the Covenant of Mayors, which most of the Flemish municipalities have signed.

ECOS is co-funded by the European Commission and EFTA

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