Today’s Climatewire (subscription required) reports that in the UK last year, “more than 30,000 winter deaths were thought to be caused by fuel poverty, up by a third from the previous year, according to the Office for National Statistics.”
What makes fuel poverty deadly? “Poor heating and a lack of insulation are known to increase the likelihood of strokes in the elderly and to exacerbate asthma and rheumatic disease in all age groups,” explains Climatewire correspondent Erica Rex.
Until last month, UK law defined fuel poverty as a household that spends more than 10% of its income “to maintain an adequate level of warmth.” The law now defines it as “above average fuel costs” that leave households with “a residual income below the official poverty line.” That seems obfuscatory. Implicitly excluded from the revised definition are households that can’t afford to heat their homes because of high average fuel costs.
As Rex notes, the redefinition instantly reduced the official tally of fuel poor in the UK from 3.2 million to 2.4 million, or from 15% to 11%. The reclassification does not mitigate the hardship of people like “Gemma,” a single mother of three interviewed for the article, who skips meals “just to keep the heating on.”
Regardless of how fuel poverty is defined, the issue is heating up, partly because Britain is facing the worst winter in 60 years, but also because government policies mandate increasing reliance on renewable energy.
According to Department of Energy and Climate Change figures, so-called green policies account for “only” 10% of the UK heating bill. On the other hand, DECC projects those policies to increase electricity prices 33% by 2020 and 41% by 2030.
Although commonly associated with the UK and Ireland, fuel poverty is more pervasive. The map below shows the percentage of European households that cannot afford to keep their homes adequately warm.
An organization called the EU Fuel Poverty Network posts two other EU SILC maps that illustrate aspects of fuel poverty.
High energy prices contribute to fuel poverty, but the main cause is low income. Poor households are more likely to be late paying their utility bills and to experience disconnection. The map below shows the percentage of Europeans in arrears on their utility bills.
Poor households are less able to invest in home mainentance, repair, and insulation. Consequently, their dwellings are more likely to be drafty, cold, and damp — and more costly to heat! The map below shows the percentage of European households in dwellings with a leaky roof, damp or rot.
A 2009 report by the European Fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency (EPEE) consortium compares those aspects of fuel poverty in five countries:
EPEE estimates that between 50 million and 125 million people in Europe are fuel poor. That range is quite large, indicating a lack of reliable data.
This much is clear. The EU goal of eradicating fuel poverty is not easily reconciled with the EU goal of replacing carbon-emitting energy with more costly renewable energy.
The tension, indeed conflict, between poverty eradication and coercive de-carbonization is the root cause of the persistent failure of climate treaty negotiators to reach an agreement with binding emission limitations for all major emitters.
UN treaty organizers invented the term “sustainable development” to hide the basic incompatibility between the economic aspirations of developing countries and the environmental agendas of Western elites.
First-world negotiators seek to cajole, bribe, and, if necessary, bully developing countries into curbing their emissions. But for developing countries, self-sustaining economic growth requires massive increases in the consumption of cheap fossil fuels and, thus, large increases in emissions.
As Bjorn Lomborg explained recently in the New York Times, developing countries have more urgent problems to worry about than global warming. More than 1.2 billion of the world’s people have no access to electricity, an estimated 3 billion cook and heat their homes with open fires and leaky stoves, and about 3.5 million die each year from indoor air pollution. “For many parts of the world,” Lomborg concludes, “fossil fuels are still vital and will be for the next few decades, because they are the only means to lift people out of the smoke and darkness of energy poverty.”
China is proof positive that fossil fuels remain the chief antidote to energy poverty. China’s air pollution from coal power plants is dreadful, Lomborg acknowledges, but China will solve that problem as the U.S. did, with technology and targeted regulation, not by abandoning fossil fuels:
Over the last 30 years, China moved an estimated 680 million people out of poverty by giving them access to modern energy, mostly powered by coal. Yes, this has resulted in terrible air pollution and a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions. But it is a trade-off many developing countries would gratefully choose. As China becomes wealthier, it will most likely begin to cut its air pollution problem through regulation, just as the rich world did in the 20th century. But, admittedly, cutting carbon-dioxide emissions will be much harder because these emissions are a byproduct of the cheap energy that makes the world go around.