The female face of energy poverty is still invisible

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

Research has since long found that poverty has a female face, so clearly, the female population is more likely to experience or fall into energy poverty. [Michael Gaida / Pixabay]

Women are more likely to live in energy poverty, something that needs to be reflected in EU policy as it rolls out its renovation wave, writes Michaela Kauer.

Michaela Kauer is the director of the Brussels office of the City of Vienna, linking Vienna with EU policy and global sustainability goals.

Currently, the European Union is undertaking significant efforts to improve the energy efficiency of the built environment, with a huge renovation wave strategy brought forward. The aspiration is to make this initiative in the framework of the EU’s Green Deal a participatory and inclusive one.

However, the Commission still fails to clarify whether this approach will be gender-sensitive in vision and process, not the least in delivery. The first issue at stake is to increase the visibility of gender inequalities in energy poverty and participatory actions.

This will allow informing policymakers at the EU level to better account for gender justice in the field of housing and urban renewal.

Energy poverty – a lack of access to affordable energy resources – is a recognised challenge at the EU level. According to the European Commission, “energy poverty is a widespread problem across Europe, as between 50 and 125 million people are unable to afford proper indoor thermal comfort”.

But looking behind the numbers and into the houses and apartments of real people, we will often find an old widow with just enough pension to heat one room or a single mum who has to decide whether she will cook a warm meal or heat her children’s bedroom.

Research has since long found that poverty has a female face, so clearly, the female population is more likely to experience or fall into energy poverty. The gender income gap in the EU stands at 16%, the gender pension gap at close to 30% – and we are talking 2021!

Corona will aggravate this; we do see a backlash already where women’s full participation in the labour market is endangered.

However, already way before the pandemic, we have seen women in hardship, struggling to afford decent and healthy homes and to pay the rising energy costs. Women with low incomes are by far more often the heads of households either in single-parent families or, due to their higher life expectancy rates, as individuals living alone at pensionable age.

The EU Energy Poverty Observatory provides a wealth of data on energy poverty. However, and again, we are talking 2021! It does not deliver gender-disaggregated data in its publicly accessible set of indicators – this is something that needs immediate repair for evidence-based policy development.

In addition, the Commission’s staff working documents on data and indicators in the frame of the EU renovation wave strategy and energy poverty do not mention once that there is a gender dimension in all of this.

Last, but not least, although there is a requirement for the member states to report on energy poverty in their National Energy and Climate Plans, there is no obligation to look into its gender bias in the Commission’s recommendation on energy poverty.

But there was a chance to do better as already in 2016, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the access to energy with specific emphasis on the gender dimension, based on a report for the committee on women’s rights and gender equality (FEMM) and evidence produced by EIGE.

European Parliament members called on ‘the Commission and the Member States to establish a definition of energy poverty which takes into account gendered aspects of the phenomenon’ and ‘for more ambitious action to tackle energy poverty, which disproportionately affects single women, single-parent and female-headed households.

Sadly, this call has not found its way into the machine room of EU statistics.

Moreover, knowing that in 23 of 27 EU member states the costs for renovation, including better energy efficiency measures in buildings can be passed legally on to tenants; there is little hope that women will not be at a higher risk of poverty and eviction if no accompanying protective measures are put in place.

The Housing Partnership in the frame of the Urban Agenda for the European Union has not only developed a policy recommendation to improve the gender dimension in the body of knowledge on energy poverty, it also suggests a number of good housing policy practices to protect vulnerable households from evictions, not only, but especially after renovations.

A common approach is to design funding instruments in coherence with national rent laws to make them fair and socially balanced.

The principle of housing cost neutrality whereby rent increases for renovations are balanced by energy efficiency savings can help avoid “renovictions” and gentrification. Participatory concepts have proven to be another valuable instrument, involving tenants in the design and decision about the scope of renovation and energy efficiency measures.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for more protection and regulation in general; tenants’ organisations already report alarming rising numbers of evictions across the EU.

Specific data on the gender-energy-poverty nexus on EU level is limited as we saw. While we have significant gender-disaggregated data in Eurostat and EIGE, gender-disaggregated data on housing affordability and energy issues is not available yet.

The obvious answer is to care for proper data in a smart knowledge sharing process to engender indicators on energy poverty.

However, a more ambitious vision is to involve women explicitly as actors in the co-creation of their living environment – bringing gender-justice forward in all the inclusive and participatory actions of the EU renovation wave, thus making women visible, heard, and empowering them to design, manage and take ownership of their neighbourhoods and cities.

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