This blog post was originally published as an Opinion piece in Helsingin Sanomat newspaper on 17 January 2024. It has been translated from Finnish to English and slightly modified for context.
Much of Europe has experienced a particularly cold winter this year. The conversation in the media has often focused on rising energy prices and how to cope in a freezing home. Yet the underlying issue of energy poverty has received far less attention in the public discourse in some countries, such as Finland. As an expert researcher in this field, Professor Mari Martiskainen, University of Sussex Business School argues that energy poverty has severe quality-of-life impacts that make it a pressing societal concern that demands dedicated solutions.
Defining the Scope of Energy Poverty
The term ‘fuel poverty’ was coined in Britain over 25 years ago to describe households where more than ten per cent of income goes to paying home energy bills. Since then, the term ‘energy poverty’ has been used in several countries to describe how households lack the necessary energy services for heating, cooling, and using various electrical appliances. Energy poverty is often caused by high energy prices, but also by the lack of availability of sufficient energy services. In some contexts, for example, poor housing infrastructure affects how well homes can be heated.
Impacts on Health and Wellbeing
Energy poverty affects the quality of life on many different levels. People living in cold and damp homes are more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases. Living in a cold home can also affect both physical and mental health. It can also impair children’s learning ability if they do not have a warm place at home to do their homework.
Energy poverty can also stigmatise and make people feel ashamed. In the worst cases, it can even lead to deaths. For example, in England and Wales, more than 4,000 people died in 2022 due to cold homes.
People living in energy poverty must make difficult choices every day related to housing and different forms of energy use. Research has shown that daily choices involve deciding whether to turn the heating on or cook a hot meal, whether to wash clothes or take a shower, or whether to heat the whole home or just one or two rooms for the family’s use. Often people must balance many different needs at once, which can create a constant state of stress.
It is important to note that many people live in energy poverty involuntarily, especially if they are trapped in poor infrastructure, such as energy-inefficient homes that are hard to heat. Research has also shown that those who are already in a socially disadvantaged position are also often more vulnerable to energy poverty too.
Seeking Infrastructure Improvements
There are solutions to energy poverty, starting with home energy renovations. Many different measures are needed to address energy poverty, but the first step is to recognise the problem and name it. It is time that countries, such as Finland which has not considered energy poverty as much of an issue, start paying more attention to the long-term consequences of energy poverty, especially for how it affects children’s learning and people’s long-term well-being. With broader recognition as a distinct social crisis, the hidden epidemic of energy poverty may finally receive the urgent solutions it demands.