Thirty million Europeans – the equivalent of Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic’s populations combined – were unable to adequately heat their homes in 2019, according to a new report from the Jacques Delors Institute.
The report, published on Wednesday (3 February), called on the European Commission and EU countries to raise awareness of energy poverty and prioritise those struggling to pay their energy bills in the allocation of COVID-19 recovery funds.
This is even more important in light of the pandemic, which is likely to have increased the number of people in energy poverty, according to co-author of the report, Thomas Pellerin-Carlin.
The report shows that the problem is worst in southern Europe, where buildings are less insulated against colder weather. Bulgaria, Lithuania, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus are the countries with the highest share of the population struggling to heat their homes.
Many people also experience energy poverty in the summer and are unable to properly cool their homes. This is a particular concern as climate change increases the likelihood and length of heatwaves.
“There are some households that are experiencing discomfort all through the year, being too cold in winter and too warm in summer,” said Marie Delair, an author of the report.
Locked down in poor housing
Energy poverty has decreased over the last decade, but there are fears it will increase again as more people are forced into poverty because of COVID-19.
The pandemic is likely to have worsened the two root causes of energy poverty: living in buildings with low energy performance and being financially unable to heat the household.
“COVID-19 has two extremely negative effects on energy poor households. The first one is that the number of people experiencing poverty, generally speaking, is increasing because of the loss of revenues, created by this economic crisis,” said Pellerin-Carlin.
“The second reason obviously is the fact that as people are compelled to stay in their homes for longer because of lockdowns, because of curfews, because of other COVID-related measures, the energy bill is increasing,” he added.
People with low income and living in social housing tend to be the most likely to experience energy poverty, with women more likely to live in poor housing conditions than men.
However, the report warns that the pandemic means new groups, like students and self-employed people, are more likely to be facing energy poverty.
Deep renovation of Europe’s buildings is need for the EU to meet its climate targets. At the moment, buildings are estimated to be responsible for 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions in the EU.
In October last year, the Commission launched its renovation wave to promote schemes improving the energy performance of buildings. Money from the EU’s €750 billion pandemic recovery fund will be available to support member states efforts to improve housing conditions.
“We have all the ingredients, what we need is the recipe and the cooking,” said Pellerin-Carlin, pointing to the fact that the money is available, but requires the political will to implement renovation where it is needed.
However, he raised concerns that the money may not go to renovation, pointing to Bulgaria, which may end up spending recovery funds on fossil gas infrastructure instead.
Where money is used for renovation, it needs to avoid just benefitting rich communities, he added.
“What we call for is the European Commission to make sure that in each national plan there is at least a part of the money that will be dedicated earmarked specifically for energy poor households,” said Pellerin-Carlin.
Renovation across the EU has consistently missed targets. Under the energy efficiency directive, countries were supposed to renovate 3% of buildings owned and occupied by central governments each year, but this target has been missed.
EU countries were also supposed to submit national long-term renovation strategies – key to addressing energy poverty – by March 2020, but only half of the member states produced these.
Alongside this, the report warns that countries’ national energy and climate plans show that energy policy continues to be dealt with in fragmented or inefficient ways. Current plans are not ambitious enough to meet the 55% greenhouse gas reduction the Commission wants by 2030.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]