Heat is something we humans can’t go without. However, heating is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities. But why exactly is that and can we do something about it?
Few things feel as comforting as escaping wind and rain indoors, where it’s all warm and cozy. For us humans, heat is essential: we need it in homes and in office buildings, schools and hospitals, as well as in the industry. It’s needed for producing goods we consume and the materials these goods are made out of, and to heat up the warm water we use when we shower or do the dishes.
Heating keeps us healthy and comfortable. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities. Thus, we find ourselves in a tough spot: how do we fit our essential need for heat AND emission reduction in the same equation? It’s a puzzle — but it can be solved.
A majority of the carbon dioxide released by us humans is a consequence of energy (i.e. heat, electricity and fuel for transport) production — and about half of all the energy we use is in the form of heat (IEA, 2020). The main reason heat generation causes emissions is our use of fossil fuels: by burning fossilised plants, we release the carbon dioxide captured over millions of years back into the atmosphere where it prevents heat from reflecting back to space and heats the planet.
Almost 90% of all heat is produced by burning fossil fuels, i.e. coal, natural gas, or oil (IEA, 2020). Of these, coal is the most common fuel. The heat that’s generated can either be used directly in for example an industrial process, or to heat water that is pumped into a district heating network. The hot water is distributed through the network and used to heat buildings and the water we use for example when showering and doing the dishes.
Despite the fact that we produce most of our heat by burning fossil fuels, there are other ways of producing heat than through the emission-producing combustion process.
Renewable heat can be produced in a variety of ways:
In addition to renewable heat, any heat generated using nuclear power or carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology is emission-free.
None of the alternatives listed above are widely used today. As a consequence, reducing heat consumption and improving energy efficiency are essential if we want to reach carbon neutrality. Small savings in heat or hot water consumption can decrease greenhouse gas emissions significantly, especially on cold days when consumption is high and there’s a bigger need for fossil fuels to cover the demand.
If you happen to live in a Nordic country, your heat might be produced in a so-called combined heat and power plant. As the name implies, these power plants produce both heat and electricity, and this is a much more efficient way of using fuels than producing just one of these. However, these plants often run on fossil fuels. Moreover, the amount of electricity they produce is dependent on the amount of heat needed in society, which means that it is hard to adjust the electricity production according to the demand.
Another way to increase the efficiency of our heat consumption is to use waste heat from industries and data centers. In many cases, industrial processes generate heat that can be fed into district heating systems if local regulations only allow it. The same goes for data centers: like most electronics, servers generate heat while working. The possibility of selling this surplus heat to the district heating network is one of the reasons it’s often a good idea to place data centers in countries with a cold climate.
These days, it’s becoming more and more common to burn household waste instead of fossil fuels to generate heat (and electricity). The combustion of waste still causes CO2 emissions, but it prevents the waste from going to landfill where it would form the even stronger greenhouse gas methane (CH4).
There are a few significant reasons for it:
Space heating is often a large contributor to our personal emissions at least in the Nordic countries, and that’s why turning down the temperature at home is a very easy way to mitigate our personal emissions. Turning down the temperature by just 1 °C saves 5% of the energy needed to heat your home. That means 5% less fuel, which means 5% less emissions from heating! Most people don’t even notice that small a difference in indoor temperature.
Easy tricks are also to lower the temperature while you are on vacation, and to re-evaluate the heating needs at your summer house every now and then.
Check our other top tips on how to reduce emissions from heating below.
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