Green recovery versus environmental justice

Threats to fuel poverty

Yves JOUFFE, 2012

Collection Passerelle

This fact sheet takes stock of fuel poverty and its worsening over the past decade in France and Europe. Beyond the purely energetic, or even ecological, issue, the author shows the complexity of this question, which must be thought of in a systemic way, since it is at the crossroads of the fight against poverty, ecology and resource preservation, the right to the city and public health.

Cold or Debt

What does a modest family do when the electricity, gas or fuel bills become really difficult to pay? We imagine that they have already moderated their expenses in every possible way. One guesses that she doesn’t have enough income to make her house a Low Energy Building®, or to move to a eco-neighborhood®. She can now accumulate unpaid bills that are increasingly difficult to pay off, finance herself with consumer credit at usurious rates, not honor her rent or her loan payments, or eat less and less well, another form of indebtedness on her health capital. She can also heat and light less, accept the cold and darkness, wear sweaters, live in a single room, install auxiliary heaters, caulk the walls and windows. She will then have to deal with humidity and darkness, mold and peeling wallpaper, allergies and respiratory illnesses that become more and more intense and frequent, then the end of visits from friends in front of whom one is ashamed, stigmatization, malaise, depression, isolation and confinement, and finally perhaps insalubrity, conflict with the landlord, children taken away by the social services, forced rehousing, or even eviction without any real relocation.

This is what fuel poverty is all about : a process that begins with a modest income, poorly insulated housing and inefficient equipment, poorly used and dependent on expensive energy ; a process that ends in health, psychological, economic and social insecurity.

A very massive phenomenon in Europe

What is the situation in Europe? The realities are diverse, between countries and even between regions. But the indicators themselves are disparate. In 2009, 9.2% of European households (18 countries) declared themselves unable to maintain an adequate temperature in their homes. This figure varies from 1.3% in the Netherlands to 64% in Bulgaria, and from 5.5% in France and Germany. In fact, the figure doubles (21%) when we take the average of the 27 countries of the European Union. If we count the households that declare unpaid bills, we find equivalent figures (8 to 9%). Households reporting leaks or mold in their dwellings are more numerous in the 18 countries surveyed (16%), but more uniformly so between countries and between income groups. Finally, households that spend more than twice their national average on domestic energy are 13% in the European Union and 16% in France in 20101.

Finally, it can be noted that fuel poverty affects between one household in five and one household in ten in the European Union. One factor seems to prevail in explaining the disparity of national situations. Comparing the number of households unable to afford their heating between the North (Netherlands and Scandinavian countries between 1.3% and 1.5%) and the South (Greece and Portugal at 16% and 28%) of Europe, it seems that climate matters little in relation to the poverty of nations.

One household in six in France and getting worse

On a national scale, other statistics appear. The energy effort rate required refers to households that would have to spend more than 10% of their resources to heat themselves adequately given the energy performance of their housing. In 2009, they are estimated at 18.4% in the United Kingdom, while they were only 5.9% in 20032. In France, the effective energy effort rate identifies households that spent more than 10% of their budget on heating and domestic energy (14% in 2006). However, this indicator overlooks those households that suffer from the cold instead of risking debt. In 2006, 14.8 percent said they were cold during the winter of 2005 (3.5 million, including 2.3 million in the least affluent half of the population). This compares to 10.9 percent in 1996. These populations almost do not overlap: 2% of households combine cold and budgetary effort, which still brings together 621,000 households in great difficulty3. 300,000 French households have already benefited from financial aid to pay their energy bills via the Housing Solidarity Fund4 (FSL).

Multiplicity of institutional mechanisms

Public action claims to change this disastrous equation between poverty, inefficient housing and expensive energy. Since energy is going to become more expensive, it remains to act on poverty, on housing and its equipment, but also on uses. Hence a very diverse set of measures in these three areas: assistance for unpaid bills or social energy tariffs; assistance for work and energy labelling of housing and equipment; advice and support for eco-actions.

In Sweden, well-insulated housing, efficient equipment and universal social protection avoid critical situations of electricity or gas cuts. Germany takes little action, especially in the fight against climate change. In the United Kingdom, numerous schemes, in particular via private energy suppliers, exist, thanks in part to social struggles for the right to energy since 1975. France selects above all poor and modest households, whereas the British programs focus on populations that are a priori vulnerable from a health point of view, because of their important presence in their homes, namely, the elderly or disabled, the sick and the unemployed.

The coordination of these systems through national programs and observatories is a difficult task and therefore particularly subject to national political orientations.

Extending the notion : energy, housing, fuel, constraints, vulnerability

The success of the notion of fuel poverty, a success consecrated by the Grenelle Environment Forum, has favored the extension of its contours. It has absorbed, in the access to energy, all energies (not only electricity and gas) and all domestic uses of energy (not only heating). Above all, housing itself and its equipment are designated as causes and therefore as criteria and objects of intervention. In other words, social electricity and gas tariffs are no longer enough. It is both the inadequacy of specific financial aid and the need for energy savings that direct action towards insulation and housing equipment. The scope now tends to include automobile fuel and even water. Transportation is a non-negotiable constraint for households living in peri-urban or rural areas without alternative transportation to the car. Fuel expenses then weaken the energy budget. Other constrained expenses can then be integrated into the phenomenon of fuel poverty. This comprehensive view allows for aid schemes that take into account the household’s trade-offs between such and such a need, and which can therefore go beyond the limits of sectoral public action. Two modalities emerge for taking transport or other expenses into account: the current budget constraint and vulnerability to future energy price increases. As a budgetary constraint, the dual dimension of housing and transport makes it possible to take into account the consequences of residential choice. It calls for a public policy to implement the right to the city, of which action against fuel poverty in housing is only one aspect. Taking into account all of the forced expenses of households even leads to a global policy to fight against poverty and inequality. On the other hand, as a area of vulnerability to energy prices, the housing-transport pairing calls rather for a prospective and public policy of energy transition, upstream and therefore outside current situations of fuel poverty.

Focusing the objectives : the energy transition without the fight against poverty

While the notion of fuel poverty tends to spread, the need for effective and therefore coherent action focuses its targets and objectives. Two targets are taking shape, depending on the social forces at work: a perimeter restricted to the poor who are poorly housed and a perimeter extended to the vulnerable. These two perimeters are perils for the treatment of fuel poverty insofar as they lead to a focus on energy at the expense of poverty, for example by financing aid for work and not the social tariffs of the « energy shield ». The scope restricted to households that are both poor and poorly housed neglects poor people who are well housed or living in substandard housing, for whom energy improvements to housing and equipment are not envisaged. The extended scope of the energy vulnerability directs the action towards global and ambitious policies of energy transition}}. Households that are already suffering from cold or from an unsustainable budgetary effort can benefit more or less quickly from these measures, but they would no longer be the basis or the objective.

The crisis as an indicator of the role of poverty in fuel poverty

However, poverty alone generates many fuel poverty situations. The increase in fuel poverty also seems to be linked to this factor. It is true that energy prices are rising. Thus, between 2001 and 2006, energy expenses in housing increased for all French households. However, the share of these expenses in the budget increased sharply for the poorest households (from 10.2% to 14.9% for the poorest quarter of the population) while it decreased for the wealthiest households (from 6.3% to 5.9% for the wealthiest quarter). In fact, unlike the poorest, well-off households have access to well-insulated and equipped housing, and their incomes have increased faster than energy prices. The deepening of social inequalities feeds the extension of fuel poverty.

From health and social mobilization to the alliance between ecology and economy

This sectoral positioning of the fight against fuel poverty, which neglects action against monetary poverty, can be read as its tactical alliance with ecological ideology. The exit from fuel poverty will not come from a moribund fight against poverty. Yet global warming and the rising cost of energy are mobilizing. Above all, ecological concerns can be translated into « green growth » by the State and all economic actors. Without going through the British phase of health policy or dwelling on the social policy phase, France is already entering the phase of green capitalism.

Going beyond the energy efficiency approach

Yet the issues of poverty and ecology, instead of being mutually exclusive for the benefit of investors, can be addressed together by situating fuel poverty within the framework of the right to housing and the right to the city, and even the social struggle for equality. These two horizons correct energy efficiency-oriented schemes. Above all, they preserve the political and media visibility of fuel poverty as an indicator of poverty and its aggravation. In fact, poverty is likely to increase as much as energy prices.

On the other hand, a public action focused on aid to energy efficiency works or on an energy transition without sobriety would improve the situation of the concerned households but would fuel a rise in energy use standards. The population would then « need » to consume more energy and would see its energy vulnerability increase.

Secondly, the calls for energy sobriety by economic and ecological virtue are problematic, not to mention restrictive measures such as a carbon tax. Focused, they stigmatize. Uniformed, they spare the rich who consume more and even have the means to be virtuous without effort thanks to an investment in energy efficiency. Normalized, they condemn a household that heats a lot, sometimes to compensate for impossible vacations that are more polluting. This ecological discipline allows the dominant classes to preserve their global environment and their unequal way of life.

Finally, the measures taken to combat fuel poverty can themselves reinforce the processes of precarization. Thus, the launching of an assisted renovation procedure for the benefit of tenants can provoke conflicts with their landlords, who would consider them responsible for the deterioration of the dwelling and would refuse to invest in it. The intervention of social services can also provoke a condemnation of possible survival tactics which fall within the domain of fraud, or a reprobation of the living conditions in the dwelling which would lead to the removal of the children living there or to forced rehousing. In general, rehabilitation policies are likely to evict tenants from rehabilitated housing and neighborhoods due to the increase in rents and prices of local services. Against this gentrification, it is once again the issue of the right to the city that must be defended as a framework for the implementation of such rehabilitations.

For a real environmental justice

Partial, energy-focused approaches to tackling fuel poverty attract political support in particular because they are intended to address environmental inequalities, i.e. to protect those exposed to both climate and energy costs. Yet there are other dimensions to environmental justice that are not met by these energy-centered approaches. They reinforce inequality by helping homeowners and investors rather than tenants. They do not penalize wealthy households, even though they are more involved than others in consuming energy and setting an energy-intensive standard. They are imposed on disadvantaged populations who are excluded from the decision-making process. Their influence on the mechanisms is crucial because they could then promote all the dimensions of environmental justice. The right to the city and the social struggle for equality are based on restoring the power of disadvantaged groups over the city and society. They are therefore the optimal frameworks for implementing the fight against fuel poverty with a view to environmental justice.

1 See the RAPPEL website and the article by Laurent, E., For a European environmental justice. The case of fuel poverty. Revue de l’OFC, Débats et politiques, 2011, p. 99-120.

2 The Poverty Site

3 See the RAPPEL website and Arnault,S., Briant, P., Devalière,I., La précarité énergétique : avoir froid ou dépenser plus pour se chauffer, Insee première n° 1351, May 2011.

4 The FSL is instituted in each department. It grants financial aid to people who have difficulty meeting their rental obligations and expenses related to their housing.


References on fuel poverty

  • Arnault Séverine, Briant Pierrette, Devalière Isolde, Fuel poverty : being cold or spending more to heat oneself, Insee première n° 1351, May 2011

  • Laurent Eloi, Pour une justice environnementale européenne. Le cas de la précarité énergétique, Revue de l’OFC, Débats et politiques, 2011, p. 99-120.

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