Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Energy

Ukraine war heats up energy poverty debate

War in Ukraine is worsening energy poverty in the EU.

As household utility bills skyrocket, driven by soaring gas prices, campaigners are ramping up pressure on countries and policymakers to respond.

“Since the war started … there is a feeling that there is increased interest in the topic and the challenges connected to it,” said Dora Biondani, senior project coordinator with the European Energy Poverty Advisory Hub, an EU-led initiative working with local governments to implement energy poverty-related policies.

Already in 2019, a quarter of EU households — around 50 million people — could not afford to adequately heat, cool or light their homes, according to an EU-led study. 

The war in Ukraine, plus earlier price trends, sent EU energy prices up by 40 percent in March compared to the same period last year. When paired with fast-rising inflation, Biondani said many more people may fall into energy poverty.

“What this war made people realize is that it is very easy for their status to change and become energy poor,” she said. “The increase in prices … actually makes the pool of people much wider.”

The EU has made efforts to respond, though campaigners have slammed its approach as inadequate. 

In its REPowerEU program to wean the bloc off Russian energy that was released Wednesday, the EU pledged to increase its binding energy efficiency target from 9 percent to 13 percent by 2030. But the Commission’s suggestions for Europeans in its EU Save Energy Communication — which says people should: “switch off the lights” as well as “driving more economically” and “using less air-conditioning” — has not gone down well.

“The EU response … seems extremely tone deaf to the lived experience of the financial strain of millions who are actually under-consuming energy right now,” said Martha Myers, a lead organizer at the EU-wide Right to Energy Coalition, calling it “a very neoliberal kind of behavioral change” that puts the onus to act on individuals.

The coalition wrote to Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson in March with demands, including for EU countries to tax windfall profits from fossil fuel companies. Myers has met with Simson three times since submitting the demands and said the commissioner has shown openness to some of them. The Commission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Europe’s mayors are taking things into their own hands.

EU commissioner- in charge of Energy Kadri Simson | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images

The Covenant of Mayors, a coordinating group of over 10,000 EU mayors, launched Europe’s first-ever index of energy poverty last week. That will allow policymakers to compare energy poverty locally and share best practices, said the group’s spokesperson Floriane Cappelletti. 

She said the mayors have submitted 10 demands to Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans asking for funds to fight fuel poverty — and plan to meet him on Wednesday. They’re also launching an “Energy Savings Marathon” on Thursday, challenging cities to maximize energy savings “as efficiently and fast as possible.”

Pan-European problem

While there is no accepted EU-wide definition of energy poverty, campaigners largely agree it includes three aspects: the price of utility bills, income level, and the energy efficiency of buildings.

The problem is hitting even high-income countries.

In the Netherlands, energy prices shot up by an average of 99.6 percent in March compared to 2021. The average Dutch household will pay over €3,600 for gas and electricity in 2022, according to research by the PwC consultancy.

Marlies Hesselman, a law lecturer at the University of Groningen and an energy poverty expert, said the country’s decision to ban new gas exploration over fears that extraction is linked to earthquakes has made it more dependent on imported gas.

That’s already having a serious impact. José Tijssen, a board member at Voedselbanken, which oversees 172 Dutch food banks, expects the number of people using food aid to rise by as much as 15 percent from the current 150,000.

The government responded by giving low-income families a one-off allowance of €800, slashing VAT to 9 percent and cutting duties on fuel. 

But Hesselmann argued the government can’t easily deal with energy poverty. 

“Because public authorities never had any active energy poverty policy, nor data, they now lack tools to properly target support to those with the highest bills,” she said. As a result, she argues, it wasted a lot of money giving the €800 allowance to all low-income households, rather than just the most energy poor.

In response to her criticism, a spokesperson for the Dutch government said, “targeted measures are very complicated,” due to multiple factors including the type of energy contract people have.

In Spain, 10 percent to 15 percent of the population was living in energy poverty last year. But energy bills rose by more than 60 percent in March relative to 2021, and the looming summer air conditioning season is likely to make the situation worse.

“We are very worried,” said Mònica Guiteras, an engineer who helps organize advocacy workshops for those living in energy poverty in Catalonia. “It’s catastrophic, not only because of the climate, but because we are not all equal in these heat waves.”

Guiteras said that of the 500 families she works with per year, more than three-quarters say power bills are their primary concern — significantly more than in previous years. Many tell her their bills quadrupled in price.

Madrid responded by slashing VAT on energy bills to 10 percent, renewing its ban on energy companies raising gas bills by more than 5 percent per quarter and introducing electricity subsidies for 1.3 million vulnerable households. The government also obtained exemptions from the EU allowing it to cap gas and electricity prices.

This article has been updated with Wednesday’s release of the REPowerEU initiative.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology


Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights


Customized policy intelligence platform


A high-level public affairs network

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like

Europe

In this ongoing project, POLITICO is hosting a sort of digital diary following Ukrainian refugees across Europe as they adjust to lives forever changed...

Europe

MADRID — Spain wants the EU to revive its perpetually dormant migration talks after Madrid secured a related NATO pledge last week.  During an...

Europe

Press play to listen to this article ROME — Giuseppe Conte, leader of the 5Star Movement, has handed Prime Minister Mario Draghi a list...

Energy

EU lawmakers on Wednesday voted to approve a European Commission proposal to include natural gas and nuclear energy in the bloc’s list of sustainable...

Europe

The General Court of the European Union on Wednesday rejected an appeal from Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín, the Catalan separatists who were temporarily banned from...

Foreign Policy

BERLIN — Western countries are willing to safeguard Ukraine’s future existence with security guarantees but they can’t amount to a similar level of protection...

Europe

One in 10 people around the world faced hunger in 2021, according to a U.N. report released on Wednesday. The report, produced jointly by...

Energy

EU lawmakers Wednesday voted in favor of a European Commission proposal to allow nuclear and natural gas-fired power plants to be marketed as sustainable...