20 January, 2022

Energy poverty is not a personal burden, it’s a political failure

Originally published on the Left.EU

Martha Myers, from the Right to Energy Coalition, speaks about the need to address the root causes of energy precarity, and presents the fourth edition of the Right to Energy Forum that will take place from the 24th to the 28th of January.

(Picture credit: Right To Energy Coalition, 2019)

“We know that ambitious action for the climate is also ambitious action for social justice”, Martha Myers, Climate Justice and Energy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe and coordinator of the Right to Energy Coalition, sums up in one sentence the agenda of the Right to Energy Coalition. Founded in 2017 by the European Anti Poverty Network (EAPN), the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), and Friends of the Earth (FOE)s the Coalition brings together environmental NGOs, trade unions, grassroots movements, both at local and European level fighting against energy poverty. “We all come from different areas of expertise and backgrounds – explains Martha – and what I really love about this coalition is its strength in diversity: we work with real honesty with each other to make sure that we are mutually learning from each other. We are aware of the difficulty of reconciling social and climate justice,, we want to bridge this gap to create more socially and environmentally resilient legislation”.


Why do you think energy poverty should be a priority for decision-makers?

”The gas crisis across Europe is clearly showing us the magnitude of the problem: we know that millions of people are being put at risk by the volatile and dangerous gas market. It is really important for us to highlight highlight that energy poverty is not a personal burden, it is a political fiasco, requiring a political response. It’s not someone’s personal failure if they cannot pay the bills at the end of the month, it is an issue of structural injustice with clear root causes”.


Such as?

“Just think about inefficient housing. 75% of EU housing is energy inefficient. We are subjected to an unfair and unjust energy system which is dominated by fossil fuel giants who continue to make the poorest in society pay the most for energy, disproportionately more than middle and higher-income groups. Finally, this is related to broader injustices such as austerity measures, structural racism, and bad working conditions like zero-hour contracts. We want to make sure that people living in energy precarity know that they are not alone”.


How is the Right to Energy coalition working with people in energy precarity? 

“Although we are an EU-wide coalition focusing at the moment on the Green Deal, we really learn from our national and local solidarity groups, and we aim to be a grassroots bottom-up coalition, where we amplify the demands of those on the ground, of those with lived experiences. We see the coalition as an opportunity to make sure that those voices are heard, and the Right to Energy Forum is a space for that.”


What is the Forum about?

It is a fantastic space to hear about the versatility of solutions to tackle energy poverty, how to tackle the root causes of the problem and the structural failures in place. We, at the Right to Energy Forum, pride ourselves for being a space for clear solutions, working together towards a better world for people and the planet. The first forum, in Brussels in 2018, brought together over 250 people. Last year’s online Forum expanded to over a thousand attendees and we were lucky enough to see impact beyond the movement. The European Commission wrote a 17 page brief after the sessions, with lessons learned and what they wanted to improve in their upcoming legislation.

The Forum has such a diverse audience, it is not just for campaigners, activists, solidarity groups, or decision makers, it is a space for everyone who wants to know more and engage in social and climate justice issues. We know that tackling energy poverty is going to require changes in our society at every level. We work on ensuring that there is adequate law and investments in place, but we also recognise and amplify the power of local communities that are rising up to fight for clean and affordable energy for all”.


​​When will this year’s forum take place?

From the 24th to the 28th of January, five days of online afternoon sessions between 2 and 6PM CET. Each day we will address a particular issue, starting with energy poverty and climate justice, then we will be dealing with the root causes of energy poverty looking at ending indecent housing and fossil fuel lock-ins. On Wednesday we will focus on energy democracy, and Thursday we will hold our decision-makers accountable with a panel discussion with MEPs and a debate with speakers from the Commission looking at how the EU is turning commitments into action. Finally, Friday will be dedicated to movement building”.


Speaking of holding decision-makers accountable, are the choices made by the European Commission so far on the right track? 

“It’s very clear that EU and national leaders are scrambling to find solutions to shield vulnerable households from rising gas prices. They are putting a lot of words forward, but we’ve seen very little adequate action. The EU has the duty to make sure that everyone has access to clean and affordable energy, but with the publication of its toolbox it passed over all the responsibility to member states. The Social Climate Fund was not increased, and there is no further commitment to ensuring that the program has funding to address the root causes in the long term. National governments on the other hand are putting forward some measures but many of these fail to do more than bail out fossil fuel corporations”.


Energy companies do not seem to be suffering in this situation…

“It’s clear that there are winners in this crisis. Fossil fuel corporates are benefiting at the expense of vulnerable households. There are people making billions in windfall profits, while the poorest are being squeezed. It’s important that we place the blame  where it’s due, and that is on the volatility and dangerous nature of the gas market and on the profit-driven neoliberal structures of a fossil fuel dominated energy market. I feel that we need to make sure that these people are not getting off scot-free”.


What should be done?

“Direct income support is crucial this winter, however, we really need to think on how we are going to get ourselves off volatile and dangerous gas, and how we can make sure that we won’t reproduce this crisis for decades to come. We need to ensure that  investments are in place, fully subsidising deep renovation programs to reduce our energy consumption  while boosting renewable programmes so that those being least served by fossil fuels companies are prioritized in the energy transition. We must not leave anyone behind, paying for instance a detrimental carbon price on their heating bills, while higher income households can transition to renewables. Ultimately we really need to reassess what our energy system is for. If this crisis has offered something, it is clarity on how the energy system now is not serving people and the planet, and this leaves the question, what is it for then? We really need to look at new models for energy democracy”.