What is energy poverty?
Energy poverty is a subject of much concern and deliberation across Europe right now as it is said that anywhere between 50 to 150 million people are affected by it. Unfortunately, a lack of a clear and unified definition across countries means that it’s hard to understand the full extent of the problem and, therefore, how best to tackle it.
According to the Energy Poverty Handbook, “Energy Poverty is commonly understood to be when a person or household is not able to heat or fuel their home to an acceptable standard at an affordable cost. In reality, it covers a very wide set of essential activities. It can occur if people cannot afford to heat their homes adequately, but also to cool them in hot climates. It may mean they cannot afford to cook hot meals, or have reliable hot water for baths and washing clothes or run essential domestic appliances (washing machines, irons, televisions, computers, etc.).”
Other countries define it in much simpler terms often referring solely to the inability to adequately heat their homes or being unable to make utility payments. In Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, it is defined as a situation where a household is forced to spend more than 10% of its income in order to “maintain a satisfactory heating regime.”
Simply put, energy poverty is caused by low incomes, high energy costs and poorly designed and built housing all of which are symptoms of an economic system which is failing to provide people with even the most basic of living standards.
Victims and implications of energy poverty
It comes as no surprise that the most likely victims of energy poverty are society’s vulnerable. People with disabilities or illness and the elderly are some of the most at-risk. The King Baudouin Energy Poverty Barometer found that single-parent families (most of which are women) and single-person households (especially older single persons) fall into this category too.
Energy poverty means living and sleeping in an environment that is too hot or cold or not having the resources to cook hot meals or maintain healthy levels of hygiene. This puts people at greater risk of illness and disease, particularly circulatory or respiratory illnesses. There are also numerous “indirect” impacts of energy poverty.
People tend to experience more social isolation as they are less likely to invite people over to their houses and go out less unless it is necessary in order to avoid coming back to a cold house. Being more susceptible to illness like flu and colds means that people take more sick days than their colleagues which can cause problems for them at work. Being unable to shower or wash their clothes regularly, people can struggle to maintain or find employment and suffer from lower self-esteem. Children living in energy poverty have lower resilience, emotional wellbeing and perform badly at school.
Finally, energy poverty is a big burden on any country’s health system. Winter-related diseases due to cold housing costs the NHS in the UK around €1 billion per year.
Energy poverty in the EU
Without a unified definition of energy poverty across EU member states, it is difficult to have a truly clear picture of the situation across the continent. A lot of the data available refers to specific difficulties such as keeping your house warm, arrears in utility bills, under par housing etc. A recent report by the EU Energy Poverty Observatory found that 7.3% of people were unable to keep their homes adequately warm, 6.6% were behind on utility bills, and 16.2% spend a high portion of their income on such bills. The research found that the majority of people who are in these situations live in apartments as private rent tenants or social housing.
Population unable to keep home adequately warm by poverty status, 2018 (Eurostat)
What is the EU doing about it?
In December 2018, the European Union issued a regulation on the Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action highlighting some very important steps towards ending energy poverty across the continent.
The regulation outlines how energy poverty must be addressed in every member state’s National energy and climate plans (NECPs). These 10-year plans (from 2021 - 2030) must be developed by every country outlining their strategy for tackling the climate crisis including areas like emission reductions, investment in renewable energy and research. The NECPs must now also include an assessment of the number of households in each country living in energy poverty. This must take “into account the necessary domestic energy services needed to guarantee basic standards of living in the relevant national context, existing social policy and other relevant policies, as well as Commission indicative guidance on relevant indicators, including geographical dispersion, that are based on a common approach for energy poverty.”
Member states that find a “significant number” of households living in energy poverty would also need to include a national plan on how to reduce this. The regulation, however, does not quantify what constitutes a significant number.
Energy as a basic human right
While the regulation put forward by the EU is definitely a step in the right direction, only time will tell of its effectiveness.
Energy poverty is yet another symptom of an economic system which is clearly not working in everyone’s best interest. Being able to warm or cool your house, having access to warm water and having the resources to cook hot meals are basic human rights. It is therefore unacceptable that millions of people across Europe are being left behind because of political inaction.
The Energy Poverty Handbook states that “making sure that there is a fair match between incomes and expenditure on essential services, cannot be left to the market alone. Only governments can promote fair distribution and redistribution policies that can ensure that basic rights are guaranteed, no one gets left behind, and close the inequality gap.”
Civil society movements and organisations have been working tirelessly for many years to put pressure on policymakers and achieve positive, tangible results towards tackling this issue. The coalition Right to Energy’s list of demands encompasses many of the necessary steps that need to be taken:
A ban of disconnections, to effectively ensure the right to energy;
The supply of a minimum amount of energy for all;
A massive renovation programme across the EU, to provide decent, efficient housing for all;
The targeting of the most vulnerable in these renovation efforts;
Recognition of the role of community energy in alleviating energy poverty;
Support for community energy projects fighting energy poverty;
A European definition of energy poverty, to understand and monitor the issue at EU-level.
Recent calculations have estimated that nearly 25% of North Macedonia, compared to the EU average of 7.3%, are living in energy poverty. In our next article, we delve deeper into the Macedonian realities of energy poverty and what the government is doing about it.
Over the next few months, The Climate Herald will be publishing regular articles about the climate crisis based on scientific research and conversations with specialists in the field. We aim to shed light on how the climate crisis affects every aspect of our lives, what solutions are being proposed, and what needs to change in order for us to tackle the most pressing issue of our time.
Author: JD Farrugia
JD has been working in project and campaign management roles since 2010, mostly within civil society but also in the private sphere, as well as the arts and culture sector. Some of these roles include: directing a CSO focused on sustainable fisheries, setting up and coordinating civil society programmes, and coordinating the programme of a community theatre. JD has an M.Sc in Environmental Management & Planning and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, both from the University of Malta. He is currently involved in various projects related to environmental causes as well as artistic projects in Malta, North Macedonia and on a European level.