19 December, 2023

As big oil fills its warm pockets, 42 million Europeans are left in the cold

A guest article by Heleen Schockaert, energy poverty project manager at REScoop.eu

With the gift-giving season upon us, marketers, brands and influencers are once again flooding us with the overwhelming feeling of never enough. Each winter warmth and coziness seem to inevitably radiate from the amount of stuff that we’re able to receive during the holidays or bargain on Black Friday, Cyber Monday and a mishmash of other catchy nicknames we’ve given these culminations of consumerism.

Unfortunately, none of the stuff that I bought and “really really needed” over the last years is making my home feel less cold now that my heating system is not properly working. In my case it is a temporary inconvenience, but for so many it is not. Energy poverty is a painfully structural issue with real, long term impacts on people’s health, wellbeing and ability to participate in society. It jeopardises a timely transition towards a sustainable future.

42 million, 651 billion and the party of a lifetime

Since September 2021, European Member States have spent an astonishing 651 billion euros on mostly one-size-fits-all financial support measures to protect households against the unfolding fossil fuel crisis. It was too little, too late and too untargeted. Last winter 42 million Europeans couldn’t adequately heat their homes, a staggering 1.6% increase compared to the year before. Huge amounts of money ended up with households not actually in need of support. Others were left in the cold.

In the wake of the fossil fuel crisis, fossil fuel companies recorded monster profits. Unlike what some would like to believe, these incredible profits will not be reinvested in a clean energy transition. As the demand for fossil fuels keeps growing, their business model remains too lucrative to alter. And as the dollar signs in Big Oil’s eyes once again took otherworldly proportions, Shell decided it was time to let go of any renewable ambitions (if ever there were any). These profits will also not be used to lobby for more justice, democracy or the preservation of basic human rights. On the contrary, the entire foundation of our neoliberalist economies is to cater to the best return on investment, regardless of moral considerations.

Exaggerated? Well… Wall Street eyed big profits as the war on Gaza unfolded, Big Pharma raked in billions over the COVID pandemic and while our planet is increasingly plagued by droughts and wildfires, Kim Kardashian’s latest marketing stunt is to use climate change as a shock factor to sell us her nipple bra “so you will always look cold even on a warming planet”. Aren’t we the fools for giving them that power and for nodding when they tell us that our money was “stolen from us” by groups who generally remain underrepresented in decision making? Aren’t we the fools for
accepting this is the only way?

A gift worth giving

There is another way. All over Europe, examples can be found of how an energy system and the communities which it should serve, can prosper when the for profit focus is abandoned in favour of ecological, democratic and social purposes. Energy communities show how a collectively owned and democratically governed energy system can shield us against market volatility, ensure accessibility and social acceptance of the energy transition and provide a platform for those voices who’ve been cut off in climate and energy decision-making. And these are exactly the voices
that can tell us where the current energy system went wrong and how we can make it better.

Since the Clean Energy Package came into force, every European citizen officially gained the right to produce, store, consume and sell their own renewable energy, either individually or collectively through an energy community. Already energy communities’ potential role in the fight against energy poverty was recognised and enforced through an obligation for Member States to ensure these initiatives’ accessibility to all citizens, including those in a situation of energy poverty or vulnerability. There are now energy communities that have taken off in social housing initiatives, such as Repowering London in the UK, energy communities that offer pre-financed shares for households with financial constraints, such as Ecopower in Belgium, energy communities that offer free electricity to households in energy poverty, such as Hyperion in Greece, energy communities that gift newborns ownership in a local energy project, such as Mine de Soleil in France and so on. Through the current European Energy and Climate policy revisions that role has been reinforced. But this all doesn’t happen by itself, we need policies that enable and encourage the development of such initiatives and recognise their social impact. At all policy levels, this means closing the gap between social and energy policy.

New Year’s resolutions

It is said that the chaos we’re seeing today is a sign of a turning point, a roaring thunder of systems moving underneath our feet in search of a new equilibrium. If so, this should be the point where we lay the foundations for a better, more sustainable and just future. It will require effort and determination, but the alternatives are there. Don’t be fooled by big corporations’ “gift” sold to us as “a product that has changed the quality of life on this planet. For the better”. It’s not the cheapest, it’s not the only one in store and you’re not an ungrateful brat if you’ve decided it’s time for something else. Wrapped in complementary green wrapping it has become a gift that keeps on taking. Instead, treat yourself and your community to a democratic boost, affordable, collectively owned and
governed renewable energy services and a future that’s worth keeping a good New Year’s resolution. Treat yourself, your family, friends or neighbours to an energy community membership: find an energy community in your neighborhood or start one of your own!