The current gas crisis and rising energy prices have made us acutely aware of the role that energy plays in our lives. For some, it means that they can no longer pay their energy bills. The combination of a low income, high energy costs, and a poorly insulated house often results in ‘energy poverty’. Why is there no universal right to energy? There is good reason to ask this question; in the Netherlands alone, more than 550,000 households live in energy poverty.
Text : Marlon Foppen / Photos: Henk Veenstra
Lecturer and PhD student Marlies Hesselman is conducting research into energy poverty and the right to energy at the Department of Transboundary Legal Studies of the University of Groningen. She is looking into environmental and policy factors that are involved in the energy and sustainability transition in order to shed more light on the problem of energy poverty and how this affects human rights.
We can speak of energy poverty when a household has insufficient access to affordable energy in their home. This is often associated with low income, high energy bills, and poorly insulated houses. ‘Energy poverty is a global problem and has major socioeconomic implications for both rich and poor countries’, says Hesselman. For example, energy poverty often involves health risks due to inadequately heated or ventilated homes. This is also one of the reasons why the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, one of which is ‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy’. ‘We are used to having access to energy all day long, but when you start to think about how many people do not, and why they do not, you are confronted with all manner of intriguing issues related to human rights.’
Hesselman’s research therefore involves the question: ‘Why is there no universal right to energy?’ Access to energy is directly linked to quality of life and the right to healthcare and to adequate housing, yet there are few human rights conventions that address this issue. This deficiency prevents the development of an adequate response to energy poverty. In addition, the right to energy can also contribute to raising awareness of its impact. ‘It makes people more aware of how essential energy is and reveals more about where precisely the energy demand lies.’ A good example of this is the Catalan ‘Alliance against Energy Poverty’, which provides a local platform for people who live in energy poverty. ‘This initiative resulted in a very successful lobby for a general ban on energy disconnections’, Hesselman explains. ‘This was an important decision that involved a specific policy to guarantee continuous access to energy for all of society.’
A more targeted public policy is certainly needed now that the energy transition is bringing new hardships for people in energy poverty. Although the transition to green energy sources is essential for both people and the environment, for financial and practical reasons, not everyone can participate. Meanwhile, governments are encouraging citizens to become more sustainable by taxing gas consumption. ‘For many people living in energy poverty, this poses a double threat, as they are already having trouble paying their gas bills. They have neither the means nor the opportunity to keep up with the energy transition’, Hesselman explains. Until recently, generous subsidies were provided for electric cars and subsidies for insulation were only available to homeowners, while people in energy poverty typically live in rented houses.
ENGAGER’s efforts have put energy poverty on the map across Europe and led to more targeted policies being implemented by EU member states to address the issue. For example, the European Union has required member states to generate data on energy poverty in society to enable the design of a more effective approach. ‘In the Netherlands, for example, a guide with Dutch indicators of energy poverty was drawn up’, says Hesselman. She wrote this document together with TNO. ‘In this guide, we also zoom in on initiatives at the municipal level, because a lot of work is already being done locally. Many municipalities have already deployed energy coaches to support people with advice on how to save money, for example, or to carry out small, affordable interventions such as installing draught strips, radiator foil, and energy-saving light bulbs.’
Tackling energy poverty has become all the more urgent of late. ‘Some people lost their source of income during the coronavirus pandemic, or saw their energy bills soar during the recent gas crisis’, says Hesselman. This led ENGAGER to ask: How are governments responding to these crises and what kind of measures are they taking to counteract them? With this in mind, Hesselman and her colleagues created the COVID-19 Energy Map: a world map that reveals the different emergency measures taken by governments around the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic. ‘We saw huge differences in the approaches: countries in Latin America, for example, immediately implemented sizable and often long-term reductions on energy bills. In Europe, temporary disconnection bans were more common, while government financial support varied greatly from country to country.’ This is clearly revealed on the map. In addition, the current gas crisis has given an extra impetus to the policy on access to energy. A particularly striking example of this is that the European Union is now allowing member states to regulate energy prices. ‘This is an active intervention to protect consumers and the economy and goes against the established system of the free market’, says Hesselman. It means that the EU now recognizes that the free market does not always work and that efforts to combat energy poverty in society are taking a new direction.
‘For the future, I hope that the coronavirus and gas crises will lead to a deeper awareness that energy poverty is a specific and structural problem’, concludes Hesselman. ‘Falling back, time and again, on emergency solutions to ensure access to energy will not solve the problem in the long run. It is important for us to commit to large-scale housing renovation projects to solve energy poverty at the core. This must form part of an energy transition that is fair for all. In other words: governments need to develop a structural approach to make energy accessible, affordable, and reliable for everyone in society.’
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