The European Commission has estimated that nearly 11% of its citizens, more than 54 million people, live in energy poverty.
The true figure is likely much higher than this given that as many as 80 million people live in damp and leaky homes.
It is, therefore, clear that ambitious action on buildings’ renovation and the recognition of energy efficiency as the first fuel are essential to move people away from energy poverty and fight against social inequalities.
Action on energy efficiency requires both renovation of existing buildings and legislation to ensure new builds are to the highest energy efficiency standards.
This dual strategy will help to tackle energy poverty, but also offers solutions to address energy security concerns, at a time when the EU is highly dependent on foreign energy suppliers, at a cost of 400 billion euros every year.
Our strategy to improve energy efficiency, particularly in buildings, requires cross-border and cross-Parliament committees, industrial policy, and the redesign of products, transport and buildings.
Yet, whilst action needs to be taken across all of these sectors, building stock seems to be the lowest hanging fruit.
The building sector is the largest energy consumer in Europe: its share of total final consumption was 40% in 2012, making buildings responsible for 36% of the EU’s total C02 emissions.
Energy renovation of buildings in the EU is a win-win
for the EU economy as a whole and will help address the issue of energy poverty.
For every 1% improvement in energy efficiency, 3 million homes can be properly renovated and 7 million people lifted out of energy poverty.
The governance framework of the Energy Union also needs to be both bottom up as well as top down.
The major challenge is therefore to link local and regulatory frameworks effectively. Energy transition will only happen if there is a change from the bottom.
Cities and local government have to act as catalysts or conductors to accelerate this change.
Both the challenges of and solutions to energy transition can be found at local level and where good practice exists on a regional or national level, the European Institutions should act as a conduit to disseminate information across the EU.
Access to finance is also key making sure that energy efficiency projects across Europe access the money they need.
Europe has created opportunities: €38billion of the European Structural and Investment Funds (Cohesion fund) for the period 2014 – 2020 are dedicated to investments in Energy Efficiency.
The European Commission has also put in place the “Smart Financing for Smart Buildings” initiative and previously Commissioner Moedas promised that €194million would be specifically dedicated to energy efficiency projects within the Horizon 2020 programme.
Which is all good news, but, barriers still exist.
Too often it’s the poorest who live in the leakiest housing stock or are treated in the most energy inefficient hospitals.
People are not always able to invest to refurbish their households. So, we need to work with local authorities and innovative local schemes and spread the message that building renovation projects can be rapidly deployed and will be economically beneficial in the long-term.
Specifically, we also need to tackle contradictory interests that can exist between renters and owners, lack of information at an individual level and the uncertainty over potential help from the banking sector.
For regions, cities and local authorities, we need to promote the exchange of best practice but also facilitate projects coming together to access energy efficiency finance.
At national level, it is essential to ensure that existing directives dealing with energy efficiency are properly implemented and that investment plans, with identified finance, are developed for both the public and private sector.
There is considerable scope for increased targeting of energy efficiency programmes towards vulnerable consumers.
Priority should be given to retrofitting low quality accommodation and social housing.
Public funding should be used to reduce the cost of the initial investments, which can often be seen as a barrier for vulnerable consumers.
In short, my prescription for tackling social inequalities through building efficiency and switching to renewables, can be summed up in 5 principles:
1. Reform the energy market so that vulnerable consumers are not disadvantaged by a system designed to cater to active consumers.
2. Put energy efficiency at the centre of energy policy because the most efficient fuel is the fuel that never needs to be used in the first place.
3. Recognition that support for renewable energy is not in contradiction with lowering energy costs, but rather the only way of sustaining cost-effective energy into the future, while understanding that environmental damage hurts the poorest most.
4. That support and additional funding is needed for regions with a high depend- ency on fossil fuels or the fossil fuel industry, to reskill those communities and ensure a ‘Just Transition’.
5. Ensure that no matter what proposal is put forward, the needs of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens are always at the forefront of our thinking.
If these principles are followed when crafting social policy, then we can maximise the benefits to all our citizens, particularly our most vulnerable.
Because in 2018, no-one should have to choose between heating, cooling, or eating.