Bogged down in dealing with rising fuel poverty



There I was, barely knee-high, struggling to put on my underpants on a bitterly cold winter’s morn, crouched down over the one-bar electric fire. And then walking to school, in short trousers, my knees exposed and eventually chapped. That was the norm back then.

At night my dear mother threw her only, and very old, fur coat over the bed I shared with my younger brother. The frost on the windows come morning seeped into my bones as once more I crouched over the one-bar electric thingy. I was grown and long left home before my parents got oil-fired central heating installed.

The winter just gone, mild as it was, I paid 70% more for my kerosene that in previous winters. It irked me to have to fork out that much but, thankfully, I could afford it. Which cannot be said of every soul on this island.

Revised regulations over the cultivating and selling of turf, a la dingbat Eamon Ryan’s proposals, are “weeks away”, the Government has admitted, despite political pressure to resolve the controversy quickly. Even when drafted, the new regulations will go to the three Government party leaders, then the Cabinet and then to the European Commission.

There will be a new belt-and-braces approach to safeguarding rights and the sale, distribution and gifting of turf in small-scale settings. Besides exempting geographical areas, there is expected to be explicit exclusion of turf-consumption in domestic settings.

The pandemic fall-out on the global economy had seen fuel prices — and, indeed, food prices — rise as far back as October but then the onslaught on Ukraine saw fuel prices, what with EU dependance on Russian supply, go through the roof and they will continue to do so, with a now forecasted protracted war in Europe.

The mantra for many has become ‘eat or heat’.

A household is considered ‘energy poor’, when that family or person living alone is unable to achieve an adequate, that is comfortable and safe, standard of warmth and energy services at an affordable cost. Energy or fuel poverty is a significant multi-dimensional socio-economic challenge. It is, alas, only now, what with Covid, Ukraine, climate change challenges, and the turf wars, that we are having any decent conversation on the subject.

Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in October 2020, ‘Carbon Taxes, Poverty and Compensation Options’, estimates a measure of ‘core’ energy poverty at 17.5% of households (roughly 297,500 households).

Undeniably, energy poverty has significant implications for a person’s quality of life, as well as physical and, sadly, mental health and is considered by various agencies as a standalone indicator of deprivation distinct from poverty in general. The causes of energy poverty can be attributed to three key factors: the characteristics of a dwelling (including appliances), the price of energy and the consumption habits or needs of the household. Those factors and, now with the cost of living going up and up, also the average weekly household disposable income.

I am in no doubt that future levels of fuel poverty in Ireland are likely to be exacerbated by several domestic factors which may increase the vulnerability of ‘at risk’ people. What comes to mind is Ireland’s changing energy context and the prospective increase in indoor air pollutants resulting from incomplete combustion of wood-based fuels. Also, Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon economy whereby the use of fossil fuels in the primary energy mix is switched to renewable options.

We must consider also Ireland’s existing commitments to renewable energy efficiency targets and climate action responsibilities following the publication of the Government’s Climate Action Plan last year. Our changing demographics and ageing must also be taken into account.

More than two decades ago, agencies sat in their coats in the EHB boardroom in Dublin, rubbing their hands to get warm. The thermometer registered 52 degrees, ie. danger of hypothermia. The heating had been turned off to bring home to those gathered what fuel poverty felt like.

Let’s not mince words. Research here has shown that people aged over 65 are seven times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of frigid temperatures, compared with those aged 18 to 44. And hospitalisations in poorer communities due to cold weather are 2.5 times more common than in the more affluent neighbourhoods.

On average, allegedly 2,800 die in Ireland every year from hypothermia, although this writer could not confirm this figure from Age Action.

And we’re bogged down in talking about turf.

For peat’s sake… I need to lie down. Again.

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