Opening speech by Christa Schweng at the Conference on Energy poverty at the crossroads of the European Pillar of Social Rights and the European Green Deal_20/04/2021

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When we speak about "energy poverty in Europe" or "energy poor European citizens", we speak about almost 35 million Europeans who were unable to afford keeping their home adequately warm in 2019 according to a EUROSTAT survey.

Energy poverty is a distressing problem to which many European citizens are exposed. I would also like to remind that energy poverty hits self-employed and small and medium-sized enterprises to the same extent as other citizens.

Energy poverty affects the concrete life conditions of families, women, young couples, children, elderly people, and in particular the most vulnerable households.

Energy poverty depends heavily on housing conditions, especially the energy performance of buildings and heating systems. That includes the ability to properly heat or cool one’s home.

A cold house can have serious health consequences and psychological impacts with a deterioration of well-being and growing social isolation.

Energy poverty also exists in the summer, when families are unable to keep their home adequately cool. And we are experiencing more intense and frequent heatwaves.

The situation of energy poverty in the EU Member States varies. Many Member States acknowledge the scale of this socio-economic situation and its undoubtedly negative impact on health and social integration.

Lack of affordable housing, particularly social housing, and rising energy, food and other essential costs are forcing people into difficult situations: leading to indebtedness, increased use of foodbanks, evictions and homelessness. Disconnections from energy supply are likely to increase once moratoria are lifted.

Already before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in five people were at risk of poverty and social exclusion in the EU. That represents 110 million people. Women, children and single parents are among the most exposed, together with people from migrant or ethnic background and people with disabilities.

The COVID-19 health and economic crisis exacerbated these inequalities, hitting the poor and most excluded hardest and pushing new people into poverty. The gap is widening between richer and poorer countries, regions, urban and rural areas and deprived neighbourhoods.

The recovery from the effects of the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for a system reset to enhance EU society's resilience, increase energy efficiency for housing and address energy poverty to the core.

To be successful, the EU and Member States have to work together. This is a unique moment to take coordinated action simultaneously on climate neutrality, recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and social cohesion.

The ambitious climate targets that the EU has set for itself will require an acceleration in the green transition. We have to avoid the risk to increase inequalities in Europe with regard to access to energy.

The EU has set over the last decade a framework to fight energy poverty with legislation, financing tools and best practice sharing. The joint aim is to support vulnerable households and improve energy efficiency.

The EU Energy Poverty Observatory is an example of sharing of knowledge and best practice to help Member States in their efforts to alleviate energy poverty. I'm proud that EESC members called for the establishment of the EU Energy Poverty Observatory already in 2013. Now, the project will soon enter into its second phase.

But more needs to be done with the new financial and legislative instruments now at our disposal. 

Therefore, energy poverty should be integrated as one of the priorities in the European Green Deal’s action plan and narrative - giving a concrete sense to the "no one behind" motto.

Boosting the structural renovation of private and public buildings should be at the heart of the Green deal: it is fundamental to use renovation as a lever to address energy poverty and access to healthy housing for all – citizens and businesses in Europe.

The Renovation Wave initiative is undoubtedly a threefold win for the climate, for the recovery and for the fight against energy poverty.

The Renovation Wave can provide a significant contribution to the economic recovery of the EU and boost employment in the construction sector. The renovation market is a vital part of business for many construction SMEs.

SMEs represent more than 90% of the businesses in the EU building sector. Targeted investments and funding instruments in energy efficient housing and sustainable buildings can have a positive impact on climate, employment and the economy. Moreover, the building itself can be integrated into the energy networks. This would allow using the buildings as energy hubs and storage facilities.

A successful realisation of the Renovation Wave will lower greenhouse gases’ emissions and the consumption of electricity – and therefore the bills paid by professionals and consumers.

All measures adopted in this framework should be economically prosperous, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.

Europe’s recovery plans must be guided by the principles of environmental sustainability, solidarity, cohesion and convergence and the determination not to leave behind any Member States, regions or individuals.

Tackling energy poverty should be at the heart of the Next Generation EU and be considered as priority in the national Recovery and Resilience Plans.

Member States should also be further incited to use their National Energy and Climate Plans and Long-Term Renovation Strategies to set out definitions and indicators, timeframes and policies to reduce energy poverty.

The European Pillar of Social Rights is a main support instrument to fight poverty and set social standards for the EU, enabling it to achieve more social cohesion. In particular, Principle 19 of the Pillar relates to the right to adequate housing and Principle 20 is on the right to access essential services, which include energy.

In line with Principle 19, the Committee stresses the particular importance that should be given to the affordability of housing and of the investments to be made by the households concerned.

I would also underline that, there is a need to take a 'rights-based approach' of poverty, which recognises people affected by poverty as not only rights' holders but also as agents for change.

The EESC has been instrumental in raising awareness of energy poverty at European level and has made a number of concrete recommendations over the years.

Energy poverty reduction cannot be achieved without the active involvement of organised civil society. This conference will show the commitment and the achievement of many civil society organisations that the EESC is proud to gather today.

During the conference, we will discuss how tackling energy poverty can contribute to the climate objectives and to reduce inequalities. Furthermore, we will discuss the importance of addressing energy poverty in both the European Green Deal and the European Pillar of Social Rights.

The conference will be an opportunity to focus on how European organised civil society can join forces with the EU, national, regional and local authorities and identify practical steps to be taken.

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Opening speech by Christa Schweng, President of the EESC