Belgium’s Plan for A Green Future: Measures Against Woodburning Heaters and Stoves


Cold. Snow. Slush. Shivers. Winter season in central and northern parts of Europe has been the usual in some parts, but unexpectedly extreme in others. This month has been rife with numerous and rather hilarious images from all over the European continent that have used the rare snow development as a source for humour and…utility. In Austria and Germany, images have been appearing with people opening their balcony doors only to find metres of snow blocking their view. A normal person would look at this wall of white and start shovelling, but others have a flair of creativity. To make the best out of a dire situation, they have used the walls of snow as coolers for beer and other beverages by carving out the snow in shelves and dividers just like a real refrigerator. Perhaps it’s not so bad after all? Not all were as fortunate to receive “free temporary refrigerators”.

In other parts, if there is any country that complains about rain more than say the United Kingdom, and usually get what they don’t wish for, it’s Belgium. Rain, rain and even more rain. But the cold is inevitable and with every winter and every season, sparks of debate appear in regards to heating and the environment. In light of emissions and pollutants continuing to be tackled by various initiatives Europe-wide, there is still a frequent topic of debate that appears in the Benelux countries and elsewhere in Europe, namely domestic wood-burning regulations when it comes to stoves and heaters. With global warming debates appearing in the headlines, how should we treat it? In the Netherlands, the year started with sparks of debate about precisely this topic, but how is its neighbour holding up?

The year is 2019. . . why are we debating woodburning heaters and stoves?

Humans have burnt wood for energy production since prehistoric times. In more modern times, however, wood has largely been replaced by fossil fuels. Although fossil fuels, unlike wood, are a non-renewable resource, burning both wood and fossil fuels release some of the same pollutants. This similarity depends on the type of chemical reactions that occur during the combustion of these fuels for energy. The result is a combination of infamous pollutants, one of which also shows up in the predominant fossil fuel debate: carbon dioxide. Imagine storing carbon over a number of decades only for it to release quickly as needed. According to Brack (2017) of Chatham House, renewable energy frameworks have treated biomass as carbon-neutral at the point of combustion, which is a flawed way of looking at it since one unit of biomass emits more carbon per unit of energy than most fossil fuels. Various studies have been published about the effects of wood-burning stoves in houses and these show that it should definitely be taken into account when drafting energy policy. Belgium has started to look in the right direction, but will measures be implemented nation-wide or in varying degrees between the regions? Remember… Belgium is a complicated country politically-speaking.

The spectrum of global warming debate, Paris agreements and Belgian situation.

In Wallonia, the southern French-speaking part of Belgium, one out of four housing units use some sort of woodheating appliances. The impact in terms of pollution is therefore not substantial but it does get stuffy in the capital (as shall be explained later). In Belgium, only Flanders (the Dutch-speaking northern part) has precise measurements on the amount of fine particles emitted by wood heating. “In Flanders, in fact, measurements have been made,” explains Pascal Theate, heating expert at the Wallonia Agency for Air and Climate, “and we arrive at an average annual average of 5% of the particles in the ambient air. which are related to the burning of wood “. Compare this to neighbour France in Ile-de-France, which has a figure of 23%.

You might have come across various headlines in recent weeks about the large-scale student protests happening in Belgium in protest against global warming and pollution with many of the students even skipping school to take a stand. 35 000 people came out in Brussels during a time when the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index was released in light of the COP24 UN Summit in Poland. Belgium ranked a measly 31st out of 60 in relation to the report which was benchmarked against how well policies were being implemented against the Paris agreements. The scorecard takes into account Greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy benchmarks and energy use. For a country that regards itself as the very “heart of Europe”, that heart, the most important organ of the body, does not seem healthy at all. For this heart to be one of the most congested in Western Europe shows that something different is required.

Belgian society looks at climate change and global warming as a whole, but policy-makers in Belgium see the issue of domestic woodburning as a cause for concern. In Belgium, Flanders has already started setting tangible measures to tackle this problem in the next decade. For Belgians, the first basic assumption of having wood-burning stoves and heaters in houses instead of gas, particularly during the winter season, is that it’s cheaper. Many fire them up in cases of extreme cold, but this is precisely what the government recommends that you do not do. Episodes of cold weather combined with high pressures can cause thermal inversions. Basically, it is colder at ground level than at altitude. And so, pollutants, trapped, accumulate. Under such conditions, it is better to favor the cleanest combustions, that is to say use gas, fuel oil and, as a last resort, wood. The use of woodburning stoves and heaters is not banned in Belgium yet, but in cases of major pollution, in the capital, the Belgian Interregional Environment Agency issues alerts when wood-stove heating appliances are banned. The only way to use woodburning in such an extreme case is when you can prove that it is the only way of heating a home. Energuide has compiled a list of information in answering the question of what to do to create less pollution from burning wood, available here. Among else, it recommends cleaning your chimney every year and choosing a suitable wood – one that is dry and clean and has a humidity level of less than 15%.

Solutions, solutions and even more solutions. Are Belgians content with the “Green Deal”?

Belgium, more specifically Flanders, has been taking a number of initiatives that have sought to reduce “outdated”, polluting appliances but this has caused reactions from Belgian citizens that have pointed at the cost of alternative ways. On average, the utility bill in the country ranges from 100-200€ per month.  In February of last year, Flemish Minister for Environment Joke Schauvelige even suggested mapping and registering the number of polluting stoves and heating appliances. Since then, there have been few developments but, interestingly enough, that month, the (VMM) called on the population not to burn wood in stoves or fireplaces for two days, because of poor air quality. That week ,there was a lot of particle matter in the air and the impact of wood combustion on the air quality in a residential area was very high locally, according to the VMM. In October of last year, it was the Flemish government that, once more, came with green initiatives in the form of a Green deal. It was suggested that woodburning appliances should be more environmentally friendly by 2030. Wood stoves, pellet stoves and open fires will have to emit half as many pollutants compared to 2016. The goal was also to make the stoves out of service by then. There is still a long time to go and much can change, but for the moment wood is still here. Whether we take the position of radical change of a complete ban is subject to debate, but thus far, nationwide policies have not been implemented, perhaps to the detriment of the protesters capturing the headlines in Brussels in this cold period. 

Evolvera – evolve in a new era.

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