Heat or eat? Winter protests loom as energy poverty sweeps across Europe

  • Soaring energy prices have triggered an increase in popular protests.
  • Governments have been urged to cushion the costs now or risk a shake-up.
  • A switch to renewables could help avoid future price shocks.
  • Get the biggest business stories sent by email every day of the week or go to Front page of Fin24.

Europe faces a major social test ahead of winter as it juggles growing discontent, fueled by soaring energy prices, and pressure to meet climate targets amid conflict in Ukraine drags on.

UK grassroots group ‘Don’t Pay UK’ is calling on people to boycott energy bills from October 1, while the union-backed ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign has launched a series of rallies and actions in mid-August calling for pay hikes, rent caps, cheaper energy and food, and taxes on the wealthy.

A worsening cost of living crisis across Europe has already seen workers in France, Spain and Belgium go on strike in the public transport, health and aviation sectors, demanding higher wages to help them cope with soaring inflation.

Meanwhile, the European Union has pledged to cut its Russian fossil fuel imports by two-thirds and reduce gas demand by 15% by the end of the year. Before the war in Ukraine, it had already set itself the goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

Compression of oil and gas imports from Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine in February, has forced countries to scramble to fill the energy gap through a combination of energy efficiency measures, turning on d old coal-fired power plants and stimulating renewable energy projects.

Some economists say the immediate need to maintain electricity and heating in Europe should outweigh medium- and long-term goals of embracing more clean energy and curbing climate change, especially as it approaches. the coldest winter months.

“No one wants to see blackouts,” said Simone Tagliapietra, senior researcher at Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic think tank, adding that all options should be considered to avoid this scenario, “including polluting ones.” .

But climate campaigners want to see governments completely turn their backs on fossil fuels, invest more in efficiency measures and add more renewables to their energy mix.

Whichever path they choose, the coming winter is set to be rife with social unrest, warned Naomi Hossain, a development policy professor at the American University in Washington DC who studies energy riots. , fuel and food.

A conservative estimate is that 10,000 such protests have taken place worldwide since last November, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation – with more expected in the uncertain future.

“If I was a politician, I would be really worried,” she added.

Energy savings

Faced with the threat of power outages, EU countries have introduced a series of energy efficiency measures to help reduce electricity bills, as annual inflation hits a record 8.9%, including around 4 percentage points due to more expensive energy.

Spanish citizens felt the heat during a scorching summer, after the government ordered that air conditioning should not be lower than 27 degrees Celsius (80.6F) in public buildings, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls.

France, meanwhile, is focusing on “energy sobriety” with measures to be launched by the end of the summer, including dimming public billboards lit at night and improving shops. who leave the doors open while using the heating or air conditioning.

Germany, the EU state most dependent on Russian fuels, has announced winter heating limits of 19C (66.2F) for public buildings and colder public swimming pools, while cities like Augsburg are considering which traffic lights to turn off.

The efforts are part of a wider EU campaign to curb gas demand as the bloc rushes to bolster supplies ahead of winter amid fears Russia will further restrict deliveries. of gas in response to EU financial sanctions.

hard choices

But energy savings have yet to ease the pressure of rising utility bills – and protests are planned from Madrid to London for the autumn in response to the cost of living crisis.

When people start complaining en masse about their inability to pay for their basic needs — and have to choose between heating or eating — it can topple governments, Hossain said.

“Often an energetic protest turns into a political protest, like in Sri Lanka,” where an uprising over an economic crisis led to the president’s impeachment in July, she noted.

Such unrest can also see far-right or left-wing parties “capturing the political energy of discontent”, while centrists balk at controlling prices or expanding public services, she added.

Cassie Sutherland of C40 Cities, a network of major cities pushing for rapid action on climate change, said measures were needed to cushion the impact of energy inflation while reducing emissions fast enough to limit warming climate at 1.5°C, the lower target set by governments. in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

She called for a policy based on the “three Rs” of “relief, renovation and renewable energy”: financial support for the poor, modernization of buildings to save energy, starting with social housing, and increased investment in the wind, solar and other renewable energies.

C40 Cities is pushing the European Commission to commit to upgrading 6 million homes next year, which would raise the current rate of housing renovation from 1% to 3%.

European consumer organisation, BEUC, agrees that countries should roll out ambitious renovation plans to protect households from energy price volatility.

“The cheapest energy is the energy we don’t consume,” said BEUC Director General Monique Goyens. “Given recent developments, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

A future without fossil energy?

As fears over energy insecurity grow, Germany, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands have signaled they will allow shuttered coal-fired power plants to reopen or extend operations beyond the dates planned closures.

Pragmatism drives decisions to restart polluting power plants, Tagliapietra said, adding that without stopgap measures, the economic and social consequences could be “devastating”.

But conservationists argue that reliance on fossil fuels to maintain power, even in the short term, will deepen the energy price crisis and jeopardize emissions reductions.

“This leads to persistent problems with fluctuating prices,” Sutherland said, noting that high energy costs are hitting vulnerable households the hardest.

And sticking to fossil fuels is also likely to increase carbon emissions, jeopardizing climate goals, she added.

A new report from the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG), a group of 16 international climate experts, has called on governments to use the energy crisis to “deeply and rapidly” reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the transition to climate change. renewable energies.

“If we push in this direction, we are creating a safer future,” said CCLS President David King.

He admitted that new solar and wind projects would take several years to come online – and would not come in time to help close the energy gap this winter.

Meanwhile, the financial pain felt by voters spells trouble for Europe’s political establishment, Hossain said, urging governments to listen to what is happening on the streets and respond with measures to ease the pain.

“Until people feel like they are being heard on energy needs, I see no reason for them to stop protesting,” she added.

Mary I. Bruner