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Energy poverty not just an economic issue, says European church network

02 February 2024


A woman begging for money in Paris last autumn

A woman begging for money in Paris last autumn

EURODIACONIA, the network that represents 52 Churches and Christian NGOs across Europe, has warned of an alarming rise in energy poverty in the European Union.

“Energy poverty is defined as a household’s inability to meet domestic energy needs, adversely affecting health, wellbeing and overall living standards,” a policy paper, Energy Poverty in Europe, released last month, says.

“The elderly, single parents, young people, migrants, and refugees are all disproportionately affected, facing difficulties in balancing energy expenses with other essential needs, some needing to choose between eating and heating.”

The report is based on a survey by Eurodiaconia and Caritas Europa in autumn 2022, which suggests a 40-per-cent increase in people seeking social support. Rising energy prices are reducing disposable incomes, resulting in increasing indebtedness and the risk of energy cut-offs and evictions, it says; but most EU member states still lack a clear definition of energy poverty.

Rising living costs were reported as the “most pressing concern” by 93 per cent of European respondents. Eighty-two per cent also feared poverty and social exclusion. “Rising energy prices are also affecting middle-class households, giving the issue more mediatic and political attention,” the report says.

“Access to energy is key to ensuring people’s health, participation in society and a decent standard of living, and is also an enabler factor to the enjoyment of other essential services, such as internet and digital communications. In this vein, energy poverty is much more than an economic issue.”

Christian aid agencies have warned repeatedly of joblessness and social exclusion in the EU’s 27 member states, amid hardships caused by pandemic lockdowns, the war in Ukraine, inflation, and the cost-of-living crisis. They have cautioned that the EU is still a long way from meeting its Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2030.

The Eurodiaconia report says that high energy costs and inefficiency are particularly fuelling poverty in Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as in countries facing severe weather. Domestic costs are increasing by up to 20 per cent in 2022 alone, and almost one tenth of EU households are now unable to heat their homes.

The 2017 European Pillar of Social Rights guaranteed all EU citizens “the right to access essential services of good quality, including water, sanitation, energy, transport, financial services and digital communications”, it says; but EU-wide measures such as energy price-breaks and tax cuts had often failed to help the poorest.

“Energy must be a public good: everyone should be guaranteed a basic entitlement to energy that does not depend on their purchasing capacity,” it says.

“A right balance between strong social safety nets for all and targeted support for households at higher risk is needed, particularly in times of crisis. . . Broader strong social protection measures, such as adequate minimum income schemes and indexed social benefits, must be set to tackle the root causes of energy poverty and prevent its expansion."

The report says that Eurodiaconia members are providing crucial help in Europe to tackle energy poverty, counselling debtors, and were working preventing disconnections, but are currently “struggling with chronic underfunding and lack of support.”

It is working for “just and transformative social change across Europe”, and pursuing a vision “of a Europe where social injustice is eradicated and each person is valued, included, and empowered to realise their fullest potential”.

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