80 million European families struggle to stay warm. The problem will be compounded by rising energy costs.

Experts, anti-poverty organizations and environmental campaigners are warning that coronavirus pandemic And rising prices have intensified a long-standing problem associated with a combination of high energy costs, low household incomes and homes that are not energy efficient.

Recent research, led by Stephen Bujarovsky, a professor at the University of Manchester and chairman of the energy poverty research network ENGER, found that up to 80 million households across Europe They were already struggling to keep their homes warm enough before the pandemic.

The European Union describes energy poverty as being unable to afford “reasonable indoor thermal comfort”. Only four European countries – France, Ireland, Slovakia and the United Kingdom – have official definitions, but experts say the problem is widespread.

Now, the price hike puts even more homes at risk of being disconnected from the electricity and gas grids because they can’t pay their bills. Many people are vulnerable as their income has declined and bills have increased during the pandemic. Workers in the retail, hospitality and airline sectors were particularly hard hit, and many lost their jobs.

“A lot has changed since 2019, but over 12 million families [in Europe] Were [already] in arrears of their utility bills,” said Lewis Sunderland, senior advisor and policy analyst for the Regulatory Assistance Project, which focuses on the clean energy transition.

Seven million European households receive energy discontinuation notices a year, according to the Right to Energy Coalition, an umbrella group that includes trade unions, environmental organizations and NGOs.

The pandemic made the problem worse, Sunderland said, as many people are spending more time at home, increasing their energy consumption.

At the same time, energy prices are rising as gas suppliers struggle to fill stocks eroded by high demand for heating last winter and air conditioning in hot summers. That shortfall has pushed consumer and wholesale prices to record levels.

Natural gas futures for October delivery have more than doubled in the past three months, according to data from Dutch Title Transfer Facility, a leading gas trading venue. Inflation data published on Thursday showed consumer energy prices rising in France and Italy.

long standing problem

“The risk of falling into energy poverty within the European population is twice the risk of general poverty,” Buzarovsky told CNN Business.

Between 20% and 30% of Europe’s population faces general poverty, while in some countries up to 60% suffer from energy poverty, he said.

Bulgaria has the highest proportion of energy poor people at 31% of the population in Europe, followed by Lithuania at 28%, relatively warm Cyprus at 21% and Portugal at 19%. Switzerland’s population is least vulnerable to energy poverty at 0.3%, followed by Norway at 1%.

Experts and campaigners have argued that the EU should ban suppliers disconnecting homes from their energy sources in the short term. But they warn that simply reducing reliance on gas and introducing more renewable energy into the energy mix could drive up prices in the long term.

“It is not clear why we do not have an EU-wide disconnection ban,” Bujarovsky said, adding that the implementation could be similar to how the block eliminated mobile phone roaming charges.

“We should view access to energy as a human right in the same way that we view access to water as a human right,” said Martha Myers, climate justice and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. Energy Alliance.

fear of civil unrest

Observers are also warning of the potential for political unrest if governments do not act to help families.

“There may be an increase in ‘Gillet jaunes’-type movements across Europe,” Buzarovsky said, referring to the protests that have rocked France in recent years.

Rising fuel prices sparked protests across Bulgaria in 2013 that toppled the government and led to small-scale demonstrations in 2018.

France has announced a €100 ($116) one-time payment to nearly 6 million households who have already received energy vouchers from the government. Spain has moved to reduce domestic energy taxes and impose levies on some energy suppliers.

According to Reuters, the Italian government has committed up to €3 billion ($3.5 billion) to subsidize 5.5 million of its most vulnerable citizens. The government will remove some fixed charges from consumers’ bills, which suppliers use to cover overheads related to renewable energy subsidies.

European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simsson said earlier this month that there are “tools” EU countries can deploy to deal with the situation.

“[Sales tax] and excise policy, targeted measures for energy poor and vulnerable consumers or temporary measures for households and small businesses, as well as direct support to consumers are all steps that can be taken fully in line with EU regulations,” she said. Meeting with Energy Ministers in Slovenia

–Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Regulatory Assistance Project.


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