Heat or eat? Winter protests loom as energy price crisis sweeps across Europe

Europe faces a major social test ahead of winter as it juggles growing discontent, fueled by soaring energy prices, and pressure to meet climate targets amid conflict in Ukraine drags on.

Grassroots group Don’t Pay UK is calling on people to boycott energy bills from October 1, while the union-backed Enough is Enough campaign has launched a series of rallies and actions in mid -August calling for wage increases, rent caps, cheaper energy and food, and taxes on the wealthy.

A worsening cost of living crisis across Europe has already seen workers in France, Spain and Belgium go on strike in the public transport, health and aviation sectors, demanding higher wages to help them cope with soaring inflation.

Meanwhile, the European Union has pledged to cut its Russian fossil fuel imports by two-thirds and reduce gas demand by 15% by the end of the year.

Before the war in Ukraine, it had already set itself the goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

Compression of oil and gas imports from Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine in February, has forced countries to scramble to fill the energy gap through a combination of energy efficiency measures, turning on d old coal-fired power plants and stimulating renewable energy projects.

German Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck made a two-day visit to companies affected by the energy crisis in July.(Reuters: Annegret Hilse)

Some economists say the immediate need to maintain electricity and heating in Europe should outweigh medium- and long-term goals of embracing more clean energy and curbing climate change, especially as it approaches. the coldest winter months.

“Nobody wants to see blackouts,” said Simone Tagliapietra, senior researcher at Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic think tank.

He added that all options must be considered to avoid this scenario, “including the most polluting ones”.

But climate campaigners want to see governments completely turn their backs on fossil fuels, invest more in efficiency measures and add more renewables to their energy mix.

Energy protests can topple governments

Whichever path governments choose, next winter is set to be rife with social unrest, warned Naomi Hossain, professor of development policy at the American University in Washington, DC.

She studies energy, fuel and hunger riots and says a conservative estimate is that 10,000 such protests have taken place worldwide since last November.

Many more are expected in the uncertain future, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When people start complaining en masse about their inability to pay for their basic needs – and have to choose between heating or eating – it can topple governments, she said.

“Often an energetic protest turns into a political protest, like in Sri Lanka,” she noted. “If I was a politician, I would be really worried.”

EU scrambles to reduce gas consumption

Faced with the threat of power outages, EU countries have introduced a series of energy efficiency measures to help reduce electricity bills, as annual inflation hits a record 8.9%, including around four percentage points due to more expensive energy.

Spanish citizens felt the heat during a scorching summer, after the government ordered that air conditioning should not be lower than 27 degrees Celsius in public buildings, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls.

Beachgoers soak up the sun on a seemingly peaceful seafront, while a nuclear power plant sits in the background.
People enjoy a heat wave on Almadraba beach in Hospitalet del Infante, Spain, in front of the Vandellos II nuclear power plant.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

France, meanwhile, is focusing on “energy sobriety”, with measures to be launched by the end of the summer, including the dimming of public billboards lit at night and the improvement of stores that leave the doors open while using the heating or air conditioning.

Germany, the EU country most dependent on Russian fuels, has announced heating limits of 19C in winter for public buildings and colder public swimming pools, while cities like Augsburg reflect on fires traffic to be extinguished.

The efforts are part of a wider EU campaign to curb gas demand as the bloc rushes to bolster supplies ahead of winter amid fears Russia will further restrict deliveries. of gas in response to EU financial sanctions.

Protesters hold signs and wave yellow and blue flags outside the Brandenburg Gate.
A protester holds a sign calling for an embargo on Russian gas and oil outside the Brandenburg Gate on Ukraine’s Independence Day.(Reuters: Lisi Niesner)

Gas supplies through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which carries gas from Russia to Germany, have been significantly restricted over the past month, with Russians blaming technical difficulties.

Rystad Energy analysis seen by BBC News shows that Russia is burning about 4.34 million cubic meters of natural gas every day at a plant near the start of the pipeline that would previously have been exported to Germany.

Germany’s ambassador to the UK told the BBC the plant was burning gas, worth around $10 million ($14.32 million) every day, because it could not sell it elsewhere.

British paralysis exacerbates energy problem

UK energy bills will rise 80% to an average of 3,549 pounds (more than $6,000) a year from October, regulator Ofgem said on Friday, calling it a “crisis” that needed to be resolved by a urgent and decisive government intervention.

But despite inflation hitting a 40-year high and the Bank of England’s warning of a long recession, Britain’s response to the crisis has been hampered by the race to replace Boris Johnson in the job. of Prime Minister.

Ofgem CEO Jonathan Brearley said the next UK leader – Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak – must act as soon as they take office on September 5.

“The response will have to match the scale of the crisis we have before us,” he said.

Ms. Truss and Mr. Sunak clashed over what policy measures to take.

So far they have suggested suspending environmental levies or cutting sales tax – proposals that have been dismissed by analysts as far too little to avoid the hit to household budgets.

A man and woman gesture as they stand behind podiums on a blue-lit stage.
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss differ in their approaches to the UK energy crisis.(Reuters: Jacob King)

The opposition Labor Party says the country can’t wait to act and calls for a freeze on bills.

A year-long energy price freeze would cost around £60bn, almost as much as the COVID pandemic furlough scheme.

Is a future without fossil fuels still possible?

As fears grow over energy insecurity, Germany, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands have signaled they will allow shuttered coal-fired plants to reopen or to extend operations beyond scheduled closing dates.

Pragmatism drives decisions to restart polluting power plants, Dr Tagliapietra said, adding that without stopgap measures the economic and social consequences could be “devastating”.

But conservationists argue that reliance on fossil fuels to maintain power, even in the short term, will deepen the energy price crisis and jeopardize emissions reductions.

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Explaining the global energy crisis

“It leads to persistent problems with fluctuating prices,” said Cassie Sutherland of C40 Cities, a network of major cities around the world pushing for rapid action on climate change.

Sticking to fossil fuels was also likely to increase carbon emissions, jeopardizing climate goals, she added.

Ms Sutherland called for a policy based on the “three Rs” of “relief, renovation and renewable energy”: financial support for the poor, modernization of buildings to save energy, starting with social housing, and increased investment in wind, solar and other renewable energies.

A new report from the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG), a group of 16 international climate experts, has called on governments to use the energy crisis to “deeply and rapidly” reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the transition to climate change. renewable energies.

“If we push in this direction, we are creating a safer future,” said CCLS President David King.

He admitted that new solar and wind projects would take several years to come online – and would not come in time to help close the energy gap this winter.

Meanwhile, the financial pain felt by voters is a problem for Europe’s political establishment, Dr Hossain said, urging governments to listen to what is happening on the streets and respond with measures to ease the pain.

“Until people feel like they are being heard about their energy needs, I see no reason for them to stop protesting.”