20% of households report being cold in their homes

Turning down the heat isn't just an environmental choice, it's also an economic necessity for the 12 million French people living in fuel poverty, who are bearing the brunt of rising energy prices. How do we define and measure this particular type of precariousness? Explanations with Sandrine Michel, economist at the ART-Dev* laboratory.

How is fuel poverty defined?

S.M.: The very concept of fuel poverty emerged in the UK in the 1990s, following the deregulation of the energy sector. The European Parliament defines it as the situation in which a household is obliged to spend more than 10% of its income to heat and light its home to an acceptable standard. There is also a French definition, laid down in 2010 by the Grenelle 2 environmental law, which states that a person in a situation of fuel poverty is one who experiences particular difficulties in obtaining the energy supply necessary to satisfy his or her basic needs, due to the unsuitability of his or her resources or housing conditions.

Does this 2010 definition reflect the current situation?

S.M.: The context at the time was very different, firstly because in 2010 energy prices were not fluctuating to the extent they do today, and secondly because inflation at that time was virtually anaesthetized, whereas today its return is causing a sharp slowdown in purchasing power. On the other hand, it should be noted that this definition is blind to the question of transport, even though half household energy expenditure is devoted to housing and half to mobility.

What are the factors behind this precarious situation?

S.M.: Fuel poverty is primarily the result of economic insecurity, and is therefore linked to poverty. But fuel poverty also involves fluctuating energy prices, household resources and practices, as well as the quality of housing and heating equipment. This is an essential point when you consider that, according to the Phebus survey carried out by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (Ademe) in 2018, 7.4 million households live in housing with an energy performance diagnosis classified as F or G, the famous thermal passoires. According to the Abbé Pierre Foundation, this figure has risen to 11 million households! To remedy this, the first energy renovation law was passed in 2015, but it has to be said that with 50,000 housing renovations per year, the project is moving at the speed of a snail on Prozac.

Can we put a figure on the economic consequences for the inhabitants of these thermal flats?

S.M.: It's estimated that the average annual heating bill for a thermal sieve is between 5,000 and 6,000 euros. In fact, there's a double penalty for poverty: the poorest households have access to the worst insulated housing, and it's they who bear the brunt of rising energy prices.

Who are the French people suffering from fuel poverty?

S.M.: 73% of people in fuel poverty tend to be tenants, and most of them live in private housing. For 43%, they are single people who are younger than the average and live in urban areas. But this idea of a typical profile needs to be treated with caution. If we take, for example, a retired couple living in an old home built before 1975 and therefore poorly insulated, they may have a considerable energy bill even though they own their own home.

In practical terms, how does fuel poverty affect the daily lives of those affected?

S.M.: 36% of households concerned say they have turned down the heating at home to avoid high bills, and these are 2021 figures, so they don't reflect the full increase in energy prices. In 2020-2021, 20% of households will claim to be cold in their homes, that's 40% more than in 2018! There are significant impacts on quality of life: 48% of adults in fuel poverty suffer from migraines, 41% from anxiety and depression, 22% from chronic bronchitis. Exposure to fuel poverty multiplies symptoms of wheezing in children by a factor of 4. It also multiplies the risk of mold in the home by 3.5.

Why do you emphasize the importance of accurately measuring fuel poverty?

S.M.: Precisely because one-dimensional measures that only take income into account don't reflect this reality. There is a second way of measuring fuel poverty, a multidimensional one, which takes into account not only financial aspects, but also the comfort of the dwelling, the feelings of the inhabitants, their safety, their health and the environment. This multi-dimensional approach is certainly more difficult to implement, but it gives a more precise definition, and clearly shows that fuel poverty is a major issue. A better definition would also enable us to better target our target groups, and improve the effectiveness of our means of action.


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