Tackling energy poverty is a non-negotiable part of the green transition

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A woman walks by an adobe hut in a shantytown inhabited by Roma or Gypsy people in Romania. EU and national funding needs to lift people in rural homes, inefficient apartment blocks and improvised dwellings in marginalised communities, like Roma, out of energy poverty, argues Emil Boc [BAIA MARE / EPA]

Europe’s new climate legislation must focus on renovating its inefficient buildings and lifting millions of people out of energy poverty, but that is only possible if the EU works together with local governments, writes Emil Boc.

Emil Boc is Romania’s former prime minister and now the Mayor of Cluj-Napoca, the country’s second-most populous city.

The city is like a great house, wrote Renaissance thinker Leon Battista Alberti: the way we build and organise our cities represents how we live together as a society. The vision of our European society is of a continent where people can build good, fulfilling lives. So it follows that we require cities that provide a good quality of life – cities that are innovative, green and inclusive, where nobody is forgotten or left behind.

As the mayor of Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s fast-growing second city, I know the joy and challenge of enacting a vision for a city’s future. The reality is, cities like ours – and countless others across Europe – cannot thrive without access to clean, affordable energy and sustainable homes for every single citizen.

Booming industries can’t keep productive workers if they can’t afford to heat their homes. Health and wellbeing can’t flourish if inadequate buildings make children sick. Social equality can’t exist if minorities and low-income families can’t access decent housing.

Buildings are home to people and shape our well-being and health on a daily basis – never more so than in the last year as the pandemic forced people at home. The benefits of renovating buildings won’t just be felt by individual families, seeing their energy bills come down and their homes become better: they’ll be felt by all of us.

Through the Renovation Wave strategy, the European Green Deal aims to deliver a triple win for citizens: green our buildings, create jobs and improve lives. This year, new EU measures to make buildings more sustainable offer us the chance to turn these aspirations into tangible action.

Now it’s time to clean up emissions from buildings, improve our homes and lift millions of people out of energy poverty. The upcoming EU policies to cut the bloc’s emissions by at least 55% by 2030, the “Fit for 55” package, and national efforts must be as ambitious as the scale of the climate crisis. But there’s an important caveat. Every measure should pass a test: will it bring every citizen along with us?

If green building policies are not designed from the outset to be socially just, they’re likely to have adverse impacts on lower-income households, already hit hard by the pandemic. The worst-case outcome? Lower-income households will have to pay higher energy bills for living in inefficient buildings that they can’t afford to renovate. It would be a moral and political failure, destined to erode support for the measures necessary to reach net zero.

Research-based evidence shows that addressing energy poverty effectively means starting with the regions that experience it most: Central and South-Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, a third of people cannot keep their homes adequately warm, compared with an EU average of just over 7%.

More than half of the population in Romania can afford to heat only certain rooms and do so for only limited periods. Citizens in these regions face low wages and energy inefficient buildings which are expensive to renovate. In cities, prefabricated apartment buildings are highly inefficient and lead to soaring prices for households. Meanwhile, in the countryside, high poverty levels and low property prices mean renovation improvements are close to impossible for many.

To tackle this, the EU’s Fit for 55 package must improve energy efficiency, incentivise the retrofitting of homes, and phase out the use of fossil fuels for heating while ensuring that measures and funding for the most vulnerable is a priority from the outset.

Financing schemes for renovations should be designed to suit households in all economic and social situations so that nobody is left behind. With a major inflow of EU cash for post-COVID-19 recovery, there’s a golden opportunity for national governments to deliver a green and inclusive economic recovery from the pandemic, reducing social inequalities throughout Europe.

In Central and South-Eastern Europe, EU and national funding should be directed to lift out of energy poverty people living in leaky rural homes, in inefficient apartment blocks, and in improvised dwellings in marginalised communities like Roma.

Grants that don’t require payback targeted at the most vulnerable households, subsidised loans, and schemes for those who aren’t eligible for on-bill financing can help alleviate the financial barriers to renovations; meanwhile, energy audits and free advice for low-income households can help speed up the roll-out of improvements.

To make this a success, EU leaders must work hand in hand with national and local leadership. I answer to the citizens of Cluj-Napoca, and they need me to act as a bridge-builder, working alongside the Romanian Government and EU leaders to develop our city to reach its potential. Municipalities, the most powerful actors because of their closeness to communities, need to be able to implement energy efficiency programmes and provide practical assistance to low-income households.

Tackling energy poverty, especially in Central and South-Eastern Europe, is a non-negotiable part of the green transition. Improved housing conditions, starting from the most vulnerable, will make cities more inclusive, resilient and sustainable.

It will make the transition to a climate-proof future fairer and more just. The Fit for 55 package and national recovery efforts are unique opportunities to bring together EU, national, and local climate action while reducing social and economic inequalities across Europe. If, after all, the city is like a great house, it’s time to get it in order.

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