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Environmental damage costs of various technologies for domestic heating

Issue 01-04-2019This study compares the environmental damage costs of various technologies for domestic heating and calculates the total environmental damage costs of domestic heating in Flanders.

Environmental damage costs highest for wood burning as domestic heating

Using wood to heat your home is far more damaging to the environment than all other types of heating. Open fireplaces take the crown here, but even recent wood-burning devices are considerably more damaging than e.g. modern gas installations. Wood is responsible for 60 % of all direct environmental damage costs, although only 20 % of Flemish households use wood. Heat pumps and heat grids have the lowest damage costs. The VMM (Flanders Environment Agency) commissioned this study as part of the Green Deal for Domestic Wood Burning.

Heating your home has a major impact on air pollution through the emission of particulate matter, CO2, nitrogen and sulphur oxides. This leads to respiratory and cardiovascular disorders, damage to buildings and ecosystems, and climate change. This damage as expressed in costs is referred to as the environmental damage cost.

The difference in total (direct + indirect) environmental damage costs is quite large between different heating technologies:

  • Open fireplaces (not shown in the chart below) are the most damaging, around 250 times more than a modern condensing gas installation (1 689 euros/GJ of heat vs. 6.79 euros/GJ of heat).
  • Even more recent wood-burning devices are 5 to 12 times more damaging (33.71 - 80.37 euros/GJ of heat) than a modern condensing gas installation (6.79 euros/GJ of heat).
  • Older wood-fired stoves (from before 2000) have a damage cost higher than 500 euros/GJ of heat, while with older cassettes this is more than 350 euros/GJ of heat.
  • Local pellets are less damaging in most cases than briquettes, waste wood, wood shavings, wood trimmings and wood logs.
  • Of all the wood-fired heating technologies, waste wood boilers are the least damaging (33.71 euros/GJ of heat).
  • Heat grids (0.26 euros/GJ of heat), ground-source (1.04 euros/GJ of heat) and air-source heat pumps (1.31 euros/GJ of heat) have the lowest damage costs.

How was this calculated?

In calculating the total environmental damage cost of a heating device, the following factors were taken into account:

  • The direct emissions of various substances per heating device at the chimney;
  • The indirect air emissions from the extraction, transport and reprocessing of the fuel;
  • The damage cost per substance;
  • The heat supplied by the device.

Annual environmental damage cost of domestic heating: 2.6 billion

The annual total environmental damage cost through emissions from domestic heating can be estimated at €2.6 billion, including €2.1 billion of direct damage costs primarily through:

  • 56 % particulate matter (inc. elemental carbon) or €1.20 billion (including €1.09 billion from wood burning);
  • 29 % CO2 or €612.9 million (including €80.4 million from wood burning).

If we look at the fuels, we see that wood is responsible for 60 % of all direct environmental damage costs, while only 1.6 % of households use wood as their primary source of heating and 19.1 % of households use it as supplementary or atmospheric heating. Open fireplaces have an annual damage cost of around €130 million or 5 % of the annual damage costs.

Wood burning environmentally friendly because it is CO2-neutral?

It could be argued that the CO2 arising from burning wood, under certain circumstances, e.g. where guarantees are offered that the wood chopped down will be replanted, is compensated for the amount of CO2 that trees and other biomass take from the atmosphere. What impact does the removal of CO2 emissions have on the results?

  • Per individual device: the environmental damage costs for wood devices drop by 20 to 25 %. This is still 4 to 10 times higher than a modern gas installation.
  • Total cost for Flanders: the direct environmental damage costs in Flanders drop by nearly 4 % or €80.4 million.

Green Deal for Domestic Wood Burning

The Green Deal for Domestic Wood Burning is a comprehensive agreement between the Flemish authorities, the producers and distributors of wood stoves and fireplaces, and various environmental movements and related institutions with the primary goal of reducing the emissions of particulate matter from wood stoves and fireplaces.

The Green Deal commits all parties to ensuring that the old polluting wood-fired devices are cleaned up and that general heating practices are improved in the short term. In the short to medium term, the Green Deal aims to steer households wishing to continue heating with wood in the direction of low-emission and highly energy-efficient devices.

Additional efforts will be made around correct usage, good installation and maintenance, as well as better firewood quality and further research.

Read the English summary of the Dutch report ‘Environmental damage costs of various technologies for domestic heating’

Study commissioned by MIRA, Flanders Environment Report

researchers: Sander de Bruyn, Reinier van der Veen, Marisa Korteland, Marijn Bijleveld, CE Delft

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