Heat energy transition pathways in the UK, Germany, and Sweden

In this article, heat energy transition pathways in the UK, Germany and Sweden have been compared by evaluating empirical to ideal scenarios. Heat energy transition is the core of the energy transition, as heating is currently the most energy-intensive activity in Europe.

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In the PATHWAYS project, empirical transition pathways have been compared to ideal-type transition pathways. All analyses use the multi-level perspective (MLP) to explain similarities and differences between the different countries. One of the domains considered is heat energy, with empirical transition pathways from Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

The Domain report 2: Comparing heat energy transition pathways in UK, Germany and Sweden has been prepared by Adis Dzebo (Stockholm Environment Institute), Bruno Turnheim (University College London), and Johannes Thema, Karin Stadler, and Holgerg Berg (Wuppertral Institute). The report (part of Deliverable D2.4) can be downloaded from the PATHWAYS project website: Deliverables page.

Around two thirds of the housing heat system in Europe today is based on fossil-fuelled energy. This causes fossil fuels for space heating and hot water to be the main contributing factor to greenhouse gas emissions from housing. The report is a comparative study of the heat system between three European countries. It draws on similarities and differences in the heat domain between United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden. The three countries were selected, as they represent a leader (Sweden), a laggard (UK), and an average performer (Germany) in terms of a sustainability transition.

Figure 1. Total domestic heat energy consumption (left) and per capita (right) for the UK, Germany
and Sweden.

The report presents and compares current and prospective pathways, based on empirical results from the analysis of the three countries on niche and regime developments along three dimensions: technical-economic, social (actorconfigurations and networks), and governance and institutions. The divergence between the analysed countries offers interesting insights into three very differently configured systems in Central/Northern Europe. They all have relatively long heating periods and thus a significant fraction of energy consumed in the heat domain in an European context. With the UK and Germany, two densely populated countries are analysed which is reflected in their high total heat energy consumption. Sweden, on the other side, not only has a low total heat energy consumption, but per-capita heat energy consumption has been declining steadily in the last two decades which also puts the country into a front-runner position in this respect (see Figure 1).

Heat energy in the three countries

Differences in the transitions pathways pursued by both countries can be explained, among others, by focusing on the kinds of transition pathways pursued and their enactment. In terms of pathways, in all three countries, change has been leaning towards "pathway A" (technical component substitution) with some "pathway B" (broader regime transformation) components.

  • In the UK, fuel composition has been relatively stable over the last two decades, with natural gas largely dominating the heating domain. Despite recent efficiency improvements in heating appliances, the present configuration is largely unchanged and based on decentralised gas boilers and a nation-wide gas distribution infrastructure. With a low penetration of heat networks for district heat (DH), renewable heat options, or energy efficiency approaches in buildings, low-carbon heat options are currently struggling to generate any significant momentum. The heating regime is fairly stable in particular due to strong infrastructural lock-in, the concentration of powerful actors on the supply side, captivity and relative lack of awareness on the demand side, and a tendency for business as usual in the equipment installation and maintenance trade.
  • In Germany, since WWII, coal, oil and wood firing (direct & boilers) formed the dominating heat technologies. This system remained stable and changes occurred mainly within the regime caused by incremental technical improvements. Through newly built central heating systems, direct oil and gas heaters were gradually replaced by oil and gas boilers but the system still remained fossil fuel-dominated. With the oil crises of the 1970s, a switch to natural gas fuelling was initiated and is now the dominant source for heating. The share of renewables is around 15% in 2014. Only for some niches, such as heat pumps and lowenergy buildings a certain momentum can be observed. Notwithstanding, an overall reduction of fossil fuel use and CO2-emissions has occurred, largely as the consequence of efficiency measures. The regime is currently stable and the major reasons for inertia include resistance from major influential parties advocating against regime change.
  • The Swedish case is different from the other two countries as it has already transitioned to a low-carbon system. The real change was catalysed by the first and second oil crisis in the 70s and the climate change discourse in the 90s, with the introduction of the carbon-tax.  The transition was helped by support from public actors and policy. Today district heating dominates multidwellings, whilst direct electricity, through heat pumps, is dominant in single-dwellings. The total amount of renewable energy in the heat domain in Sweden is highest in the EU. The Swedish heat regime is currently stable and there are few cracks and tensions. There are, however, signs of market saturation and increased competition between the two dominating systems, district heating and heat pumps.

Key differences in transitions

The three analysed country cases exhibit a very different state of heat domain transition and regime stability: While a transition has almost been completed in Sweden, the UK and Germany have ambitious targets, but currently all niches show a low momentum and breakthrough probability and therefore a rather stable, non-sustainable regime. Main barriers for a transition in UK and Germany lie in the limited renewable or low-carbon heat energy resources and in a very stable, fossil fuel-based heat system with strong and powerful actors and networks. In addition, niche technologies are mostly cost-intensive and complex, have (often very) long lifecycles that lead to substantial technological lock-ins, and low replacement rates (for example in buildings, building and heat infrastructures, gas- or DHgrids, power plants etc.). However, all these barriers can be overcome with strong policy incentives and a consistent legal framework as the Swedish case has shown.

The Domain report 2: Comparing heat energy transition pathways in UK, Germany and Sweden has been prepared by Adis Dzebo (Stockholm Environment Institute), Bruno Turnheim (University College London), and Johannes Thema, Karin Stadler, and Holgerg Berg (Wuppertral Institute). The report (part of Deliverable D2.4) can be downloaded from the PATHWAYS project website: Deliverables page.

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This article is an output of the EU-funded PATHWAYS project.


The overall objective of the PATHWAYS project is to provide policy-makers and other key stakeholders with better insight in on-going and necessary transition pathways for key domains relevant for EU policy. PATHWAYS focuses on a selected set of transition domains using a combination of linked scientific approaches.The PATHWAYS project will achieve this by means of the following concrete specific objectives:
  • provide a detailed mapping of key alternative transition pathways ( In terms of its technical, economic, political and social dynamics characteristics).
  • better understand the conditions needed for the development of socio-technical systems in a way that is consistent with rapid transitions towards sustainable development goals (the conditions include descriptions of regimes, niches and landscape related to these transitions).
  • Explore how insights and activities of key actors can be harnessed (Specifically by analysing how the limitations of current policies can be overcome by a stronger focus on the involvement of different stakeholders)
  • link integrated assessment modelling, transition studies and participative action research. In order to create an integrated, interdisciplinary chain of analysis which allows to deepen the understanding of transitions towards sustainable, low carbon societal systems.
  • use the findings to inform ‘transition policies’ in the EU (Amongst others in the form of well elaborated scenarios that are based on more realistic descriptions of policies and their impacts)

Project details

  • Project title: “Exploring transitions pathways to sustainable, low carbon societies” (PATHWAYS)
  • Funding scheme: European Union Seventh Framework Programme (EU FP7, grant agreement no. 603942)
  • Duration: 3 years (1 December 2013 – 30 November 2016)
  • Project coordinator: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
  • Project website: www.pathways-project.eu