In Europe, a steep rise in wholesale gas prices has caused an ongoing energy crisis. Despite fossil fuel companies making record profits in 2021, the rise is so sharp in the UK that up to 25% of households could be plunged into fuel poverty. Panic and desperation have gripped the public as families are forced to choose between “eating and heating”. The crisis has also created the perfect breeding ground for misinformation and bad actors to push their fossil fuel agenda.
What is happening?
The era of instability, conflict and crisis is in full swing and shows no signs of slowing down. The war in Ukraine has forced millions to flee the violence and seek refuge in the homes of their neighbours like Poland and Romania. Concurrently, Europe is experiencing an energy crisis. Gas prices are soaring across the continent pushing many ordinary people into poverty. There has been a 600% increase in European gas prices so far in 2021.
In 2020, demand for gas plummeted as the coronavirus brought the industry to a grinding halt and most of Northern Europe experienced a milder-than-usual Winter. In 2021, International Energy Agency (IEA) made a prediction that gas demand was likely to rebound by 3.6% as the pandemic slowed and we returned to “normal”. The IEA also cautioned that if left uncontrolled, gas consumption could be increased to 7% higher than pre-pandemic levels by 2024. This is a problem for Europe, in particular, because it relies on imported gas to meet the demand with around 40% coming from Russia.
The energy crisis was well underway before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the war has pushed costs up even higher and Russian oil and gas exports are aiding Putin’s war.
This overreliance on gas, a fossil fuel, is a compelling reason to accelerate the transition to clean and renewable sources like solar and wind. As climate writer Mary Hegler pointed out, people do not demand specific sources of energy, just energy. We urgently need to move away from fossil fuels and generate power from renewables.
there is no such thing as petroleum demand. There is only energy demand. https://t.co/GDQOOTTRcq
— Mary Annaïse Heglar (@MaryHeglar) March 25, 2022
Unfortunately, the crisis is being leveraged by some powerful figures with a vested interest in the fossil fuel industry.
Fuel poverty occurs when households struggle to afford their energy bills. This often results in people not being able to adequately heat their homes, which in turn leads to health problems. The current energy crisis will see millions more pushed into precarious circumstances. This is a particular concern in the UK, where fuel poverty was an existing issue and prices are shooting up higher than in other European nations.
86% of homes in the UK use gas as fuel for heating. Even before the price hike, an estimated 3 million people lived in fuel poverty. Now, as of April 1st, bills have gone up by 54% with another steep increase expected in October right before we enter Winter. By contrast, prices in France are seeing an increase of just 4% due to the government putting a cap on the cost to consumers.
In the UK, this will devastate low-income households. Fuel poverty also disproportionately affects already marginalised communities. Research from Friends of the Earth found that “people of colour are twice as likely to be living in fuel poverty as white people”. Their research also revealed that areas rated in the worst category for fuel poverty are more likely to have a high number of residents with disabilities.
Living in cold homes is detrimental to people’s health. In a 2011 report, the Institute of Health Equity, explains that fuel poverty can mean an increase in the risk of respiratory infection or bronchitis. It also places additional stress on stress on the cardiovascular system and causes asthma or exacerbates symptoms. Aside from physical health issues, living in a cold home can also increase the risk of mental health problems.
Understandably, people are panicking about what the sharp increase in fuel prices means for them and their families. Big oil and politicians are using this energy crisis as an opportunity to push misconceptions.
The first untruth gaining traction is the tired trope that net-zero and other environmental pledges are too expensive. Politicians invested in the fossil fuel industry often push the narrative in an attempt to attract working-class voters by appearing to have their interests at heart.
Nigel Farage, of Brexit Party leadership notoriety, announced his plans to campaign against the “ruinous green agenda” under a new outfit known Britain Means Business as Farage argues that there is a connection between the rising cost of living in the UK and the government’s environmental plans. The Brexiteer wrote for the tabloid, the Mail on Sunday that “net-zero is net stupid.” His campaign is planning an “anti-net zero” rally.
It’s worth noting here that not one, not two, but three organisations are taking the UK government to court over its net-zero plans, which they say are criminally insufficient. The Good Law Project, Client Earth and Friends of the Earth have all been granted permission to proceed with their cases and plan to argue that the UK’s Net Zero Strategy is not compliant with the Paris Agreement or the Climate Change Act, which establishes a legally binding target to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% in 2050 from 1990 levels.
Katie de Kauwe, lawyer at Friends of the Earth, said, “We are delighted that the High Court has granted us permission to take the government to court on all of our grounds…..Principally, we hope to prove just how woefully inadequate the government’s Net Zero Strategy is, the same policy framework that is supposed to be the UK’s roadmap to a safer, greener future. We believe the government has breached the Climate Change Act 2008, a vital piece of legislation that Friends of the Earth was pivotal in bringing into law. We will now get to work on preparing our case, and look forward to our day in court.”
Domestic fossil fuels won’t affect energy prices
Farage, and others like him, argue that the answer to Europe’s dependence on Russian gas is for countries to invest in domestic fossil fuel projects. In the UK, there have been calls to bring back fracking. And, there has been renewed interest in the Cambo Oil field.
The thing is, the price of gas is set by a global market and domestic supply will do nothing to address the energy crisis. Bills will remain high and climate stability will continue to be eroded.
Furthermore, even if a domestic supply did help prices go down, it takes an average of 28 years for a new oil or gas field to yield a supply for the consumer. This will do absolutely nothing to address fuel poverty now, which is an immediate need.
Fracking or “hydraulic fracturing” is a method of fossil fuel extraction. It involves fracturing rocks and applying pressure so that when pressure is released, the oil or gas is also released. In addition to the fact that fracking involves fossil fuel that is wrecking the climate, it also contaminates water, negatively affects health and can even trigger earthquakes. In the UK, a moratorium was put in place in 2019 after a nationwide campaign against it.
Now, in light of the energy crisis, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly planning to review the ban on fracking as a solution. However, Friends of the Earth, the NGO that campaigned against fracking for 7 years resulting in the current moratorium, states that it’s “pure fantasy” to believe that fracking could help with the energy crisis and lower energy bills.
The Stop Cambo campaign celebrated a major success last year when the proposed oil field was paused. The project’s primary investors, Shell and Siccar Point Energy, pulled out after the campaign was widely supported by the media and the public around COP26.
However, in the shadow of the ongoing energy crisis, Shell appears to be reconsidering its position. Just days ago, the company confirmed it had applied for a license extension which was granted by UK authorities.
Stop Cambo has reignited its campaigning efforts with an open letter to the government. The letter includes a reminder that even the UK’s Business Secretary has admitted that “additional UK production won’t materially affect the wholesale market price” for gas.
Make the polluters pay
In 2021, fossil fuel giants like BP and Shell celebrate record profits. BP reported $12.8 billion while Shell announced profits of $6.4 billion. This windfall is a direct result of soar gas prices and the resulting energy crisis.
Fossil fuel companies are profiting and wrecking the climate, while families are driven into fuel poverty. Non-profits have called for a “Windfall Tax”. This would be a one-off tax on the fossil fuel industry giants which would then be used to fund insulating homes and providing financial support for those at the sharpest end of the energy crisis.
Unsurprisingly, BP is not in agreement and a spokesperson for the company claimed that “generally, a windfall tax on UK oil and gas producers would not encourage investment in producing the UK’s gas resources. Very importantly, we also believe the UK should continue its [low carbon] energy transition as fast as possible. BP is committed to playing our part here,” a company said.
A petition created by campaigners amassed over 300,000 signatures but the proposition was rejected by Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor. However, it is likely that campaigners will find another way to keep this on the agenda. Particularly in light of the fact that another price increase is on the horizon.
Investing in real solutions
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Investing in renewable energy is the best solution, not just in the longer term but also in the short term. Solar and wind power will enable countries to generate their own energy without exacerbating the climate crisis or inadvertently funding conflict. Insulation is the quickest way to improve the efficiency of homes, seeing benefits in less than a year. The UK has Europe’s ‘leakiest’ homes in terms of energy because they are very poorly insulated. The majority of homes are old and were built before advancements in energy efficiency. This makes homes expensive to heat and means that much of the energy is wasted as heat escapes. Almost 15% of the UK’s total emissions come from heating homes therefore insulation will also reduce overall emissions.
Europe’s energy crisis has the potential to act as a catalyst for positive change if we can fight the misinformation and platform real solutions.
IMAGE: Photo by Nato | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of earth from space. A portion of the planet is visible, as a semi-circle in the foreground of the picture. It appears to be night time and all that is visible is a network of lights.
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