Time to address Europe’s hot and cold homes crisis

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

Natural gas inventories are lower than usual due to last year’s unusually frosty winter. [Jonathan Fox / Flickr]

Most European countries have significant energy poverty problems and are unable to keep their citizens warm during winter. In fact, that applies as much to cooling as to heating, writes Adrian Joyce.

Adrian Joyce is campaign director at Renovate Europe, a political communications campaign with the ambition to reduce the energy demand of the EU building stock by 80% by 2050.

Is it acceptable in 2019 that nearly one in ten households across Europe are unable to keep their homes warm in winter? We have grown so used to living with energy poverty that it may seem strange to ask that question, even when a Friends of the Earth report out today finds that most European countries have significant energy poverty problems and will not be able to keep their citizens warm this year.

In a graphic to makes architects’ hearts sink, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia foot the table for damp, leaky homes with high energy bills. Meanwhile, the EU’s coldest nations – Sweden, Finland and Denmark – still have the warmest homes.

We are familiar with not asking why this should be. But actually, there are other questions that arise from a new European Environment Agency (EEA) report which similarly demands a response. For example, should we tolerate a Europe in which one in five people cannot keep their homes cool in summer?

This is not a niche issue reserved for Mediterranean countries: 250 people died in the heatwave that hit Denmark last summer. As climate change takes hold this century, unequal outcomes may loom ever larger.

Housing inequality is a key driver of unjust climate impacts – and that applies as much to cooling as to heating.  Heat rises and it seeps through thin ceilings, placing top floor residents at greatest risk of heat injury. Just over half of the victims of the Paris heatwave of 2003 lived on the top two floors of traditional Paris ‘service rooms’. Often they were elderly, or immobile.

The relationship between heat stress and top floor dwelling has been confirmed by research in Nuremberg, and it is worst in city centres where ‘urban heat islands’ can raise local temperatures by up to nine additional degrees centigrade.

Europe’s poor have traditionally been concentrated in older, cheaper and more poorly-built housing, often small flats in inner city apartment buildings. Because they have less choice in where they can live, they have tended to rely on homes close to workplaces and affordable amenities, frequently in industrial areas.

“Ensuring the affordability of appropriately insulated and ventilated housing in quiet locations with good air quality is, therefore, key to reducing the exposure of vulnerable groups to environmental health hazards,” the EEA Study says.

Older tower blocks which typically house low income tenants in the UK, France and eastern European countries are particularly prone to over-heating. But they need not be when, as the EEA Study makes clear, simple cost-tailored investments could turn that picture around – to everyone’s benefit.

In Berlin, an award-winning Kie zKlima project has involved residents in the building of shaded structures in a local kindergarten, a backyard greening for local multi-generation housing and the installation of a public drinking water fountain.

Another “living lab” building conversion in Dresden’s HeatResilientCity project is transforming 1980s prefabricated-slab apartment blocks in the Dresden-Gorbitz district, through a mixture of behaviour adaptation and physical measures.

Impressively, a renovation of two tower blocks in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham installed reflective blinds in windows, reflective coating on walls, roof insulation and mechanical extractor fans in a straightforward revamp that led to a noticeable improvement for most residents.

As Shirley Rodrigues, the deputy mayor of London put it at the launch of the EEA Study: “Half of the air pollution problem we have in London is non-transport related, and buildings are a massive source. If we were able to set minimum energy efficiency standards we could do work around replacing boilers – which are a huge pollutant – both for air quality and for climate change. But we don’t have those powers and there was no talk about that in the government’s air quality strategy.”

The British government is pursuing its own path to meet EU air quality obligations before it leaves the bloc. But when almost 20% of the European households at risk of poverty are also unable to sufficiently heat their homes, the issue deserves urgent attention at EU level too.

In Bulgaria, most poor homes – nearly 40% of all households – struggle to keep warm during winter months, while other south-eastern European countries, including Greece, fare little better. “This may explain why excess winter mortality in southern European countries is higher than in northern European countries,” the EEA analysis says.

Appallingly, the share of income spent by Europe’s low-income families on energy rose 33% between 2000 and 2014, with the worst performing countries suffering from winter and summer energy poverty. In North Macedonia, Poland and the UK, lone parent households were found to be most vulnerable to cold home syndrome. In Lithuania, single older adult households were most at risk of living in chilled dwellings.

“Building standards for urban housing are often an underestimated part of our climate policies,” the EEA director, Hans Bruyninckx, told a launch meeting last week. Renovating buildings to high social and energy standards would offer “a good way forward,” he said.

With the building sector accounting for 40% of our energy use and 36% of our greenhouse gas emissions, it is hard to disagree. The sector has the potential to transform the life possibilities of Europe’s most vulnerable – and alienated – citizens. It can infuse our emissions-cutting task with a cry for social justice that resonates across the continent. it merits priority attention now before our hand is forced by extreme weather events.

Subscribe to our newsletters