The EU Energy Poverty and Vulnerability Agenda: An Emergent Domain of Transnational Action

© Springer-Verlag London 2015
Jale Tosun, Sophie Biesenbender and Kai Schulze (eds.)Energy Policy Making in the EULecture Notes in Energy2810.1007/978-1-4471-6645-0_7

7. The EU Energy Poverty and Vulnerability Agenda: An Emergent Domain of Transnational Action

Stefan Bouzarovski1, 2   and S. Petrova 

SEED, University of Manchester, Arthur Lewis Building, Oxford Road, Manchester, M202SQ, UK

Department of Economic Geography, University of Gdańsk, Bazynskiego 4, 80-952 Gdańsk, Gdańsk, Poland



Stefan Bouzarovski (Corresponding author)


S. Petrova


This chapter explores the organisational and political complexities surrounding the adoption of energy poverty agendas and policies at the EU decision-making level. Theoretically, it is based on the literature on policy mobilities. Empirically, it engages in a triangulation of data from the secondary literature and interviews in various EU institutions. The analysis shows that agenda-shaping in the EU poverty domain has been mainly driven from above and has been highly contingent on attempts to ‘define’ and ‘identify’ the problem. There is little evidence to suggest that particular events or dynamics have provided a central impetus for European action in this domain. Only in recent years have energy poverty concerns started to enter mainstream EU policy agendas, principally as a result of the Commission’s efforts surrounding the implementation of the Third Energy Package.

7.1 Introduction: Addressing Energy Poverty at the European Scale

In decision-maker and academic circles alike, the concept of ‘EU energy policy’ is generally associated with measures to address residential and industrial consumption practices or transnational security issue.1 There is little recognition or knowledge of the fact that the EU is becoming increasingly involved in a new strategic effort situated at the nexus among household fuel use, affordability and residential energy efficiency. This process is mainly associated with the intensifying drive to formulate and implement pan-European policies aimed at preventing and ameliorating energy (or fuel) poverty—a condition where a household is unable to access energy services in the home to a socially and materially acceptable level (Bouzarovski et al. 2012).

The relative invisibility of EU energy poverty policies can be attributed to the fact that debates around the social and housing dimensions of energy use have traditionally received little attention at the national scale within most member states. The UK and Ireland represent a notable exception; the condition of ‘fuel poverty’ received early political recognition in these two countries, albeit with considerable political difficulty (Boardman 2010). The last 5 years have seen an increasing acknowledgment of the European energy poverty problem by decision-makers across the continent. This trend has been motivated, in part, by growing public concerns over the affordability of energy: an issue that reached major proportions in the case of Bulgaria leading to the downfall of the country’s government in 2012.

The rising recognition of energy poverty has been accompanied by the emergence of a number of new regulatory documents, policy proposals and high level discussions on the topic. But the emergence of a new polity with respect to the understanding of energy poverty as a genuinely pan-European problem has not been associated with a commensurate amount of academic attention. There is limited appreciation of the systemic processes that lie behind the political acceptance of energy poverty at the European scale, especially in terms of the power actors, interests and relations that have driven the increasing prominence of this issue within EU regulation and debates.

This situation has transpired despite the fact that the constituent dynamics of some of the political developments and institutional structures associated with adjacent programmatic sectors are well known (for example, there is a sizeable body of research of the underlying principles and implementation challenges associated with EU policy in the environmental policy and security domains—see McCormick 2001). It is also necessary to understand how the various emergent components of EU policy on the subject are being influenced, shaped and accepted by member states themselves.

Updating the results of an earlier study (Bouzarovski et al. 2012), this chapter explores the organisational and political complexities surrounding the adoption of energy poverty agendas and policies at the EU decision-making level. Theoretical insights from the policy mobilities literature (see Peck 2011; McCann and Ward 2012) have been employed towards an empirical exploration of the actors, interests and power relations’ discourses implicated in the entrance and proliferation of energy poverty concerns into the EU political agenda. Our dependent variable is the process of agenda-shaping within the EU’s emergent energy poverty policy. This has been examined with the aid of a triangulation of data from the secondary literature and interviews in various EU institutions; 15 such interviews were undertaken during 2011 and 2012—their results are presented summarily in the chapter as the surveyed individuals asked that their identities are kept confidential. In our empirical explorations, we draw upon the emergent body of work on the nature of agenda-setting processes at the EU level. As such, energy poverty policies at the European scale can be seen as part of the broader policy effort in the EU energy poverty domain, which is often being seen as ‘driven by events’ and subject to ‘soft’ governance mechanisms (Tosun et al. in Chap. 1; Tosun and Solorio 2011).

Authors working in this vein have also argued that ‘despite the centrality of climate change concerns in the rhetoric of the European Commission, an effective integration of environmental goals into energy policy is difficult to achieve’ (Tosun and Solorio 2011, p. 1; but see Ciambra and Solorio in Chap. 8 or Cox and Dekanozishvili in Chap. 9 for cases in which the European energy agenda was linked with the climate change agenda). Their findings are inspired by the broader literature on agenda-setting, where it is contended that the definition and identification of a problem plays a key role in consequential policy stages. The process can take place in both a bottom-up and top-down manner while involving multiple international actors (Cobb and Elder 1983). In the text that follows, we explore the extent to which some of these claims hold true in the case of European energy poverty.

The analysis of the evidence that we have gathered is presented in three sections: in the first, we examine the broader regulatory framework relevant to the intersection between energy affordability, energy efficiency and social welfare. The second discusses the origins of direct EU energy poverty policies as they relate to initial efforts to create an agenda in this domain. The third section scrutinises the more recent role and activities of various organisations in this domain to provide an account of the emergent political discourses aimed at encapsulating the driving forces of, and mitigating strategies for, energy poverty in Europe. The conclusion evaluates the success of policies to date while highlighting the pathways that have allowed for action aimed at addressing the domestic energy deprivation of European households to become ‘mobile’. We also speculate on the likely future development of EU activities in this sphere.

7.2 Energy Poverty: Key Underpinnings

Before proceeding to discuss the evolution of EU policies in the energy poverty domain, it is worth briefly exploring the wider theoretical and practical issues associated with the conceptual intersection among energy, poverty and housing. As was noted above, this is an area which has often remained invisible to politicians and scientists alike—indeed, a government minister in the UK infamously claimed that ‘people do not talk of “clothes poverty” or “food poverty”, and I do not think that it is useful to talk of “fuel poverty” either’ (Campbell 1993, p. 58). When seen in this context, it is easy to see why and how the early establishment of a clear ‘fuel poverty’ definition in the British academic and decision-making polity was so groundbreaking. Indeed, it was the UK where the first comprehensive state policies to address fuel poverty were created—in addition to the emergence of integrated scientific debates about the driving forces and consequences of living in homes with inadequate energy services. The initially established interpretation of fuel poverty in the UK, where this condition is principally seen as the inability to purchase affordable warmth, remained in place for more than 20 years resistant to outside criticism. Until a few months ago, fuel poverty in the UK was described as a situation in which a household needs to spend more than 10 % of its total income (before housing costs) on all fuel used to heat its homes to an acceptable level (Bouzarovski 2014).

Two aspects of this definition have been particularly controversial in the scientific and policy-making community: First, ‘needing to spend’ refers not to actual expenditure but to a hypothetical level that is closely related, inter alia, with the thermal energy efficiency of the dwelling (ibid); Second, ‘acceptable level’ is taken to mean that the home is heated in line with the standards recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO)—18 °C for bedrooms and 20–21 °C for living rooms (ibid). The UK now uses a definition of fuel poverty based on the findings of a recent government-sponsored review undertaken by Professor John Hills at the London School of Economics.

The background work for report involved multiple stages of consultation with experts, non-governmental organisations and think tanks involved in the topic. Having concluded that the existing UK definition has resulted in a situation whereby fuel poverty statistics are too sensitive to movements in gas and electricity bills as well as “the precise assumptions made for what are seen as adequate temperatures for people to live at, and the incomes reported to a survey that is mainly not focused on income measurement, the report suggested that the government adopt a new indicator about the extent of fuel poverty, which would consider households poor if (i) their ‘required fuel costs’ are above the median level for the entire population; and (ii) spending that amount would leave them ‘with a residual income below the official poverty line” (Hills 2012).

In essence, controversies around the definition of fuel poverty in the UK reflect a broader unease among academics and policy makers alike with respect to the methods and approaches for measuring the incidence and character of inadequate energy services in the home. This has traditionally been an extremely challenging task in light of the specific nature of the problem, which is:

  • difficult to detect, due to being private and confined to the domestic domain by its very nature;

  • highly variable over time and space, since an individual may fall in and out of fuel poverty at many stages during the life course, and the extent of domestic energy deprivation experienced by one household may be very different to that of its neighbours;

  • sensitive to cultural and social context, since expectations and perceptions of energy services in the home are highly subjective.

Statisticians, researchers and decision-makers have used three types of methods to observe and measure fuel poverty. Some of them have employed direct surveys to examine the level of energy services (space heating or cooling, lighting, refrigeration and so on) and subsequently comparing the obtained values to a given standard. In most cases, they have relied on analyses of the extent to which patterns of household energy expenditure across the population vary in relation to preset absolute and relative lines.

A distinct strand of work has focused on obtaining the subjective impressions of households about the level of energy service obtained in the home. It should be pointed out that the first approach has not been used on a large scale within the EU due to the technical impracticalities and ethical issues associated with it (Bouzarovski 2014). Adding to this are the difficulties of defining adequate energy service standards in part because of cultural specificities: As was pointed out above, it is known that a home normally considered well-lit and warm in one geographical context may not be seen as such in another (ibid). But national statistical agencies across the EU do gather expenditure data via household budget surveys that, when combined with census data and information compiled through other research studies, have allowed experts to identify the depth of fuel poverty. Other than a limited number of countries and international organisations (such as the World Bank), this method of energy poverty data collection has not found much policy application.

At the same time, EU debates on questions of domestic energy deprivation have largely been influenced by self-reported data relevant to energy poverty collected principally through/in Eurostat’s Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey (or SILC, preceded between 1994 and 2001 by the European Community Household Panel—ECHP) as well as national statistical agencies. SILC and ECHP ‘consensual’ indicator about the share of population that feel ‘unable to keep the home adequately warm’ has provided the only directly relevant and internationally comparative tool for judging the extent of energy poverty at the EU scale.

These surveys have often been cited in—and provided the motivation for—international action on the issue due to collecting various objective data about dwelling quality and the material conditions of households, which allows for self-reported views of thermal comfort to be cross-referenced against other built environment and economic strain indicators. However, experts working in the field have often questioned the quality of these sources, while emphasising that they do not contain enough relevant information to make informed policy decisions.

EU action on the energy poverty front has been further complicated by the multiple meanings of the concept of ‘fuel poverty’, since numerous related concepts have been used to describe this condition in other settings. This includes, inter alia, notions of ‘energy precariousness’, ‘energy deprivation’ and narrower terms that refer to some of the symptoms of this condition, such as: ‘cold homes’, ‘energy non-payment’ or ‘energy disconnection’. The existence of a distinct body of research on ‘energy poverty’ in the developing world also needs to be noted here: Such work has mainly been focused on investigating and ameliorating the consequences of inadequate access to ‘modern’ energy services as a result of the lack of adequate energy infrastructure. In recent years, various scholars have started to use an ‘energy vulnerability’ framework to emphasise the technically and temporally precarious nature of access to energy services per se. Insights from the ‘capabilities’ approach and relative poverty have also been added to the equation.

7.3 European Policies to Address the Energy-Housing Poverty Nexus: Setting the Context

Despite the scarcity of academic research on the extent and depth of European energy poverty, there is now a sufficient body of evidence to suggest that this predicament is widespread across the continent. It is likely to affect millions of households. The lack of adequate energy services in the home is particularly pronounced in Southern and Eastern European states due to their overall higher rates of general income poverty and energy inefficient dwellings. Nations situated on the ‘Atlantic Rim’—Ireland, the UK, France and Belgium—are also seen as vulnerable to above average rates of domestic energy deprivation (Bouzarovski 2014).

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