Energy poverty makes its way in Europe between heatwaves and energy prices

Energy poverty makes its way in Europe between heatwaves and energy prices

Last June the European Commission (from the Energy Poverty Advisory Hub: EPAH) published a handbook as a guide to understand and addressing energy poverty, which has become a reality in Europe, and particularly in Spain. Although there is no agreement on a common definition of energy poverty, it is widely accepted that there is energy poverty when people cannot maintain an adequate temperature in their homes (either by heating, cooling or applying energy solutions to an affordable cost). The extent and seriousness of the problem has been aggravated in recent months by climate change, whose consequences in the form of heatwaves or extreme droughts are already perceptible and throughout the entire European continent; and by the energy crisis in Europe as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.

The commitment of the European Commission (EC) to address the challenges related to the climate and the environment was ratified with the European Green Deal. It is established as one of the main priorities that the EU must transform itself into a fair and prosperous society, where there are no net GHG emissions in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use. In addition, it is reaffirmed that this transition must be fair and inclusive, therefore alleviating energy poverty is a key precondition in this context.

What are the causes of energy poverty?

Common causes of energy poverty
Most common causes of energy poverty. Source: EPAH, Introduction to Energy Poverty Advisory Hub (2022)

Energy poverty is a complex challenged linked to several factors, so there is no single reason that we can point to as the sole cause, in addition to the fact that its nature varies greatly from one local context to another, and that it occurs at domestic level, which makes its identification and quantification quite difficult. Energy poverty also has consequences for the people´s health and well-being, since extreme indoor temperatures are related to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, heat stroke or excess deaths. In children, it can also have consequences related to poor school performance, as well as the development of respiratory health problems at an early age, and lower social and emotional well-being.

In general, the most common causes that lead to energy poverty are three; low income levels, a lack of energy efficiency in housing, as well as the low energy efficiency of buildings and their systems, and the high energy prices.

Related to these three causes, it is also worth nothing the great influence of climate change, making energy poverty a problem for the most vulnerable groups not only in winter, but also in summer, as a result of the high temperatures recently recorded due to heatwaves.

And these recent heatwaves have broken temperature records around the world this summer, and their impacts and consequences for society and the environment are being dramatic in the form of forest fires and devastated crops, key infrastructure affected (e.g. power cuts electricity supply, deforming roads and tracks, etc.) and causing serious health problems in thousands of people (in addition to increased mortality).

In cities, the problem is even greater, as it is exarcebated by the so-called heat island effect, a phenomenon caused by changes in the reflectivity (or absorption) of the sun´s energy on the earth´s surface, with the consequence that the temperature rises in urban areas. This is because buildings, pavements and roofs tend to reflect less sunlight than natural surfaces, absorbing, retaining and re-emitting the sun´s heat.

If we continue analysing the previously identified causes of energy poverty, it is well known that in Spain there is a significant number of buildings with low energy performance. This is either because of their low efficiency in passive terms (the thermak envelope is not adequately insulated and that involves significant losses in winter and thermal gains in summer), or due to the low performance of the heating and cooling systems. It is that, as a whole, buildings are responsible for 40% energy consumption in the EU, and 36% of greenhouse gas emissions, so it is necessary to place a particularly important focus on the energy retrofitting of buildings already built.

An important advance in this sense comes from the hand of the recently approved Law on the Quality of Architecture (Ley de la Calidad de la Arquitectura), which aims to guarantee the quality of architecture as a good of general interest, and responding to social, environmental and revaluation issues of architectural heritage.

With respect to energy prices as a cause of energy poverty, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has cause an increase in energy prices not only in Spain but throughout Europe, specifically fossil fuels. As the recent United Nations report on the Global Impact of the War in Ukraine: Energy crisis points out, this increase in energy prices is accelerating the cost-of-living crisis, and maintaining the vicious cycle of constrained family budgets, increasing food and energy poverty, and increasing social unrest. This crisis is having a deep impact on vulnerable population in developing countries. Although during the two years of the pandemic energy market experienced great volatility in prices (due to reduced demand), the war in Ukraine has affected the supply of fossil fuels and the market in general, in which Russia is the main exporter of natural gas and the second exporter of oil.

What can world leaders do in the face of this rapidly changing situation?

All this leads world leaders to rethink their energy policies and plans. Well, while in the short term, countries must first seek to manage energy demand (new technologies, behavioural changes in energy consumption patterns, support from passive systems, etc.), medium and long-term measures for aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as with the Paris Agreement, emphasizing the use of renewable energy sources and the need for climate/energy resilience. In Europe especially, this may also be an opportunity to direct efforts towards the goal of becoming the world´s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

What we do from CARTIF?

From the CARTIF Energy and Climate Policy area we work to help the different public administrations in the development of plans and strategies for adaptation and mitigation against climate change, such as the plans framed in the Covenant of Mayors where, in addition to taking measures to mitigate climate change and adapt to its inevitable effects, the signatories commit to providing access to safe, sustainable and affordable energy for all, thus helping alleviate energy poverty.

CARTIF, together with GEOCYL Conultoría S.L., is currently developing the Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan of Logroño and among other research projects it is worth highlighting the NEVERMORE project, where we work on the development of methodologies and tools for the evaluation of measures of adaptation and mitigation and various scales, which serve as references for politicians when defining their climate and energy strategies.

What role does the building sector play in the post-COVID era on the path to climate neutrality?

What role does the building sector play in the post-COVID era on the path to climate neutrality?

It is a reality that the building stock, not only in Spain, but in Europe in general is outdated. Although this can be a positive indication that cities have years and history, and buildings can be heritage with high historical value, the reality is also that a large part of them are not energy efficient. Approximately 85% of European buildings were built before 2001 (according to the Renovation Wave Strategy document)

The specific regulation on thermal insulation of the building envelope appear for the first time around the 70sm which means that buildings over 50 years old (more than 40%) were built without any requirement on energy performance. In general, buildings are responsible for 40% of total energy consumption in the EU, and for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. It must be taken into account that the current regulations for new construction are strict enough in terms of energy efficiency and emissions (through the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the EPBD): since 2019 it is mandatory that all new public buildings be nearly Zero-Energy Buildings (nZEB), and, since the end of last year (2020), it is mandatory for all new buildings. Therefore, the focus is now on meeting better energy efficiency standards in the rest of the building stock.

The COVID-19 crisis that we are experiencing has also put the focus on the buildings, which have become an office for teleworking, a nursery or classroom for children and students, even the main place for entertainment and (online) shopping. Europe sees this as an opportunity to join forces and, while addressing the way to overcome the COVID-19 crisis, also take advantage of the effort that has been made for years in retrofit, to rethink, redesign and modernize the building stock, adapting it to a greener environment and supporting economic recovery.


The European Commission already set in 2018 the long-term objective of being climate neutral in 2050, and last 2020 it established a medium-term objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by 55% compared to 1990 level. To achieve this objective, buildings must make a great contribution, since they are responsible for a high percentage of these emissions, with approximately a 60% reduction; in addition to a 14% reduction in final energy consumption and 18% in energy consumption for heating and cooling. These are the premises of the Renovation Wave Strategy to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, with the aim of at least double the renovation rates over the next 10 years, thus promoting energy renovation in buildings throughout the European Union.


Furthermore, to support this, Europe is trying to ensure accessible and well-oriented financing, through initiatives within the framework of Next Generation EU the post-pandemic recovery plan, aimed at rebuilding post-COVID-19, which will also have a part for energy refurbishment in buildings.

In view of all this transformation that will take place in Europe, the European Commission has also begun to worry about aesthetics (because, as we said at the beginning, it is about transforming the old building stock, but paying attention to its historical value and as heritage). This is where the new European Bauhaus was recently born, a policy lab to work with citizens, as a participatory initiative to create resilient and inclusive cities, co-designing and co-creating a new style to provide more harmonised and sustainable future; materialising the European Green Deal and accompanying it with an aesthetic that characterises the sustainable transformation.

Is it true that these existing initiatives in the European context help and facilitate the definition of strategies for renovation of the building sector, but, if we were the politician responsible for improving the building stock in our region or municipality, where would we start?

First, it would be necessary to generate the most detailed knowledge possible of the building stock. Well, in this way, the policies on renovation and energy retrofitting in buildings will be more precise and specific to the real problems, and the solutions and financing offered adjusted to the status of the building stock in each case.

For this, we can make use of the public databases of existing buildings. At European level, the Building Stock Observatory (BSO) stands out among others, where information is collected digitally on the status of European buildings, providing a better understanding of the energy performance of buildings through reliable, consistent and comparable data. A relevant data source at European level is also TABULA/EPISCOPE, two European projects, one as the follow-up of the previous one, which provide a database of residential buildings based on defined typologies according to the size, age or other parameters, providing a set of examples for each of the countries analysed representing these building types.

Another important source of information for the characterisation of the building sector is the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) (more detailed information on this in a previous entry) of buildings, by analysing the documentation provided in the general registry of each region (autonomous community) or at national level, depending on the country. This certificate, beyond obtaining a label on the building’s energy consumption and its CO2 emissions (with letters from “A” to “F”), contains specific data on the year of construction, the construction characteristics of the building’s thermal envelope, energy systems, proposed measures to improve the energy rating, etc. So it becomes valuable information to know the status of buildings and the actions that could be carried out to improve that status, and to be able to extrapolate it to neighbourhoods, cities, regions and countries.

At CARTIF we participate in different projects aimed at improving knowledge of the building sector, and to support in decision-making that help in the definition of future renovation strategies. For example, in BuiltHub a data collection of the European building stock is carried out, as well as a roadmap is established on how to obtain reliable and useful data for the development of renovation strategies. Other projects, such as ELISE Energy Pilot, MATRYCS and BD4NRG, use the data from the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) to get a better knowledge of the status of the building stock in different regions (autonomous communities in the case of Spain), while it also participating in the development of a common certification model for Europe. Or the TEC4ENERPLAN project, where advanced techniques for multi-scale energy planning (from building to region) are developed, and support for the development of tools that serve as the basis for meeting the 2020-2050 energy efficiency goals.