Member States must get ready for the new local heat and cooling planning obligation

The EU and cities are preparing the ground to decarbonise Europe’s buildings but most Member States are missing in action


Publication date

September 19, 2023

Decarbonising Europe’s buildings is probably the biggest challenge of the energy transition. Not because they consume 43% of our energy and 36% of our greenhouse gases but because it is more like hundreds of millions of small challenges than one big one (and a cornerstone in the transition towards a fossil free energy system (enhanced grids, flexibility, demand response etc). Grouping those challenges on a local level to enable benefits of scale, tap into industrial waste heat and install technologies such as district heating and cooling is therefore a very good thing. Our living environments and energy systems must also be healthier, safer and more resilient, and kept cool during heatwaves, and warm during winter That is what the local heating and cooling planning obligation in the recent Energy Efficiency Directive requires of every city over 45,000 people.

And last week Germany adopted its Planning Act, which will require local authorities to produce municipal heating and cooling plans from 2028 getting ahead of the Directive.

But adding a new obligation on local authorities’ shoulders won’t achieve much if cities don’t have the money, the people, the skills and the legal framework to develop and implement actionable plans – these plans risk being stuck on a shelf somewhere. It is where Member States’ action is required.

A new tracker report from Energy Cities has mapped how much support member states offer to cities, and the existing national legal frameworks, in developing  local heating and cooling plans.

A huge gap in readiness among Member States

European countries have not seriously begun to consider what it will take to decarbonise buildings while keeping citizens sufficiently warm or cool.

Local heating and cooling planning is completely absent in half of EU member states. Some countries have been doing it well for decades: Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia. In these countries however, the historical focus of these plans was security of supply; it is just recently that decarbonisation goals have been considered. More importantly other countries have recently caught up to some extent: the Benelux countries, Ireland and Germany. Here the main reason is often achieving environmental targets, but a lot of work is missing to integrate these plans in spatial and urban planning. And translate strategy into action.

Southern and eastern Europe have a tremendous hill to climb, and we see a massive gap in the local resources needed to climb that hill in countries like Poland and Greece.

And in a year of record heat, national support for local cooling plans do not figure in a single EU country. It’s difficult to overstate what kind of impact that absence will have on citizens in the years to come.

Heat and cooling are local matters, with adequate national support

Heating and cooling planning must be done locally because every region has a different mix of building types, geology, weather as well as heat resources like water or industry. What works in a Portuguese town will not work in a Polish city. Furthermore, only the local level offers the possibility of involving citizens’ groups, local business and industry, health and education organisations and energy utilities in the drafting and implementation of a strategy. This is key to ensuring that the issues are properly understood, and the strategy adhered to.

But cities cannot do it alone. In more than half of European countries a new legislative framework will be needed, along with the development of a whole new support system for towns and cities. Those countries must move faster, and the next EU Commission must propose a new EU Heat Strategy to help.

While that national support obviously must include funding there are many other ways member states will be asked to help cities.

When transposing the Energy Efficiency Directive member states must change the existing legal framework for local authorities so this aligns with prior obligations and not in a silo of its own. This obligation must also be coordinated with the decarbonisation strategy for buildings that exists at national and regional level.

Member states must strengthen technical support, as guidance documents, training and working groups to help municipalities of all sizes draw up a sound and functional plan. Member states could get inspiration in Flanders which developed a comprehensive set of technical tools.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cities will need easy access to detailed energy-related data and other spatial data. Good practices are found in Germany, where energy utilities are obliged to share their data in open access databases. The quality of the plans and how successfully they are implemented depend on it.

Huge potential not to be squandered

If every medium-sized and large town were to develop and implement a local strategy to decarbonise heating and cooling in its area, it could be a game changer for the EU! We have some good examples in Europe, it’s just a question of having the will and the means to systematically support cities in doing so.

Some of those examples will be on show in Brussels on October 11th at the final conference of the EU-funded Decarb City Pipes 2050 project. Seven cities will present and debate technical, financial, planning and organisational solutions by and for cities, as well as legislative propositions for national and EU policy makers, to decarbonise the heating and cooling sector.

One of the key messages will be the question of speed, especially as the EU’s 2030 targets race closer. It often takes five years of planning to get shovels in the ground to install a district heating network which means cities need to act, and be supported in local heating and planning, now.

Photo de Tom Rumble sur Unsplash