A gas storage facility in the Netherlands. Even before the current gas price crisis, 50m Europeans were already struggling to afford heating
A gas storage facility in the Netherlands. Even before the current gas price crisis, 50m Europeans were already struggling to afford heating © Peter Boer/Bloomberg

The writer is chief executive of the European Climate Foundation

As Europe enters its coldest months, business and households face gas prices that have more than quadrupled since last year. This could grind on indefinitely if European leaders do not end their dependency on fossil fuels.

The gas price crisis and mounting geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine have once again highlighted that Europe needs a secure, local supply of renewable energy and to cut down gas consumption, much of which goes on heating our homes.

Over 40 per cent of the gas the EU imports is used for heating buildings, and a third of European homes use gas for heating. Reducing energy demand through better insulated homes and accelerating the take-up of renewable heating will help put Europe’s energy dependencies on a new footing.

Before the gas price crisis — and before the pandemic and the highest inflation in decades — 50m Europeans, or one in four households, were already struggling to afford heating. Even those families not personally threatened by energy poverty were directly affected. Gas companies across Europe have folded or shut their doors to new customers. In one case in the Netherlands, 90,000 customers saw their bills suddenly double after their provider was taken over.

Brussels has already pledged a “renovation wave” as part of the EU Green Deal. Now it is time for member states to launch this in earnest. Shortly before the end of last year, the European Commission proposed new legislation to renovate the most energy-hungry buildings ahead of yet another EU leaders’ meeting that discussed the energy price crisis. There is about €1.8tn available, including €670bn from the recovery fund, a third of which is earmarked for climate action. Surveys show that people want to live in energy-efficient homes, and they are looking to their government to speed the transition to greener buildings.

We need to match this political will and public desire with a credibly financed vision of the warm and affordable homes we want to live in, and with the laws and policies to make it happen.

Meeting the Paris climate agreement goals also requires that we change the way we build, insulate and heat our homes. The early impacts of climate change are noticeable in Europe already; a recent model by the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change showed that rising temperatures could cause heatwaves to increase at least tenfold by 2050.

Some are already responding. Helsinki — with its 300,000 households, and biting winters — has a clear plan to be climate neutral by 2035, with a complete phaseout of coal and gas for heating. In France, the Abbé Pierre Foundation is trialling support systems to help people on low incomes invest in renovating their homes. The Netherlands has 50 “natural gas-free districts” where the government supports alternative, low-carbon heating sources.

This is a huge economic opportunity for rebuilding a post-pandemic economy, one that takes us closer to net zero. Home renovations can create millions of jobs, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises. In Spain alone, according to trade unions, energy efficiency renovations can create work for nearly half a million people.

At every level, the expertise points to clear social benefits of pursuing this campaign to revamp our homes and doing it now.

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Across Europe, the worst-performing homes from an energy efficiency perspective are disproportionately occupied by low-income households, and so far they have largely missed out on renovations. By targeting these homes, we can both reduce energy poverty and ensure the benefits of the Green Deal are felt by the families who need it most.

Better homes also improve air quality, reducing the considerable public health impacts linked to respiratory disease from having to endure the cold and damp, and other effects on people spending more than 90 per cent of their time in ill-designed spaces.

This is a moment of ambition and investment in Europe. The resources and tools are there, as is the strong call for climate action seen in every recent election across EU member states.

Without a decisive change, we face a severe uphill battle to seize these obvious opportunities, while cutting energy bills — and that is without the risks of geopolitical interference and climate turbulence.

The appetite is there, as is a bracing spirit of ingenuity. We need to harness this energy into an inclusive and just renovation effort, which lets Europeans see and feel the Green Deal improving lives in their own homes.

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