This article is part of our special report Back to front: Struggle to renovate EU building stock persists.
Energy efficiency renovation can alleviate fuel poverty and bring a raft of health and societal benefits. While the EU could do more to boost renovation, several governments have shown that effective answers can be found at a national level.
Europe’s old and inefficient building stock is a major factor in fuel poverty, which affects one in four EU citizens. Poor insulation and inefficient heating systems, coupled with low incomes and high fuel prices, leave many people facing a daily choice between heating and eating.
While annual renovation rates languish around the 1% mark across the EU, the health impacts of fuel poverty are very real. Not only does this undermine the well-being of a large proportion of EU citizens. It also puts extra strain on public services.
A 2011 study by Friends of the Earth found that “residents with bedroom temperatures at 21°C are 50% less likely to suffer depression and anxiety than those with temperatures of 15°C”.
In the UK, where mental health conditions account for almost a quarter of the National Health Service’s (NHS) total burden, the extra strain is significant.
But cold, damp homes also exacerbate circulatory problems and conditions such as arthritis, as well as acting as breeding grounds for mould, which can cause and aggravate respiratory conditions. In the UK, children who live in homes with poor heating are more than twice as likely to develop asthma, which alone absorbs around 1% of the NHS budget.
“Every year, the increase in deaths during winter months is measured, assessed, published and analysed, and every year the figures are shocking,” said Dr Jessica Allen, the deputy director of the UCL Institute of Public Health Equity.
Experts attribute up to 50% of the annual spike in winter mortality to poor housing conditions. And the most pronounced patterns of seasonal deaths do not occur in the countries with the coldest winters but those with the poorest housing, including Portugal, Greece, Ireland and the UK.
In London alone, for example, an average of 3,710 people die every year as a result of living in a cold home, according to Allen.
“We know the scale of our annual public health emergency, and we know what to do to prevent it. Inaction is costing many lives each year,” the expert said.
“The solution for much bigger issues”
Poland provides another example of how fuel poverty can undermine citizens’ health and well-being.
40% of Polish homes have no insulation, so in order to stay warm, many people resort to burning waste and cheap, low quality coal. Not only does this lower the indoor air quality in these homes but it also adds to the country’s severe air pollution problem.
Indeed, according to the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), 2.5 million Poles – more than 5% of the population – suffer from chronic lung disease as a result of air pollution.
“The health factor there is a huge issue,” said Pelle Pedersen, head of responsible investment at PKA, a Danish pension fund.
“What we’re seeing more and more is that energy efficiency is just fitting into these bigger human and social logics. Energy efficiency is not the standout issue but it’s becoming recognised as the solution for much bigger issues,” Pederson added.
Following Lithuania’s example
A number of EU countries have launched renovation initiatives to tackle fuel poverty and its societal impacts.
At 35%, Lithuania’s energy poverty rate is above the EU average, but its government is taking decisive action to turn the situation around, with a plan to renovate 8,000 homes by 2020 and cut domestic energy demand by around 40%.
Last year, Vilnius offered homeowners grants to cover up to 40% of their energy efficiency renovations. With the help of the European Investment Bank (EIB), the government raised €100 million in capital to leverage some €500m in low-interest bank loans to cover the remaining costs.
“These examples prove that national renovation strategies should integrate energy poverty alleviation, they bring benefits in terms of energy savings and improve the quality of life of vulnerable people,” Oliver Rapf, the executive director of the Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), told EURACTIV.com.
Similar schemes have been launched in the Netherlands and Romania.
Under the Dutch scheme, some 110,000 houses are scheduled to be renovated to near-zero emissions standard. The renovations are paid for by housing associations, which make their money back through savings on energy bills. And uptake has been strong, thanks to the government’s promise to carry out the work within two weeks and install a new Ikea kitchen as an incentive.
The Romanian scheme aims to renovate 65,000 communist-era apartments and update their communal heating systems to bring energy savings of up to 40%. Households earning less than €500 per month qualify for the €304m scheme, which leaves homeowners liable for 10-40% of the total cost.
“It isn’t always a matter of how much money you get, but how you use it,” Rapf said.
“Deliver programmes that work”
For BPIE, efforts to alleviate fuel poverty cannot be limited to providing subsidies to pay the energy bills but must include deep renovation programmes if the benefits are to be felt across society.
In a policy paper published last month, the organisation acknowledged the role the EU could play in boosting building renovation but called on EU member states to do more to improve the quality of their housing.
“The EU could certainly better use its funding mechanisms (like structural and cohesion funds) to earmark investments for reducing fuel poverty through renovation, but member states have the responsibility to design and deliver programmes that work,” said Rapf.
Initiatives like those in Lithuania, he added, “show that it can be done”.