Where in Europe do people struggle to stay warm?

Energy insecurity manifests itself in many dimensions. One of the most harmful forms is the inability to maintain the desired temperature of a household. The term thermal comfort describes a person’s state of mind in terms of whether they feel too hot or too cold.1 Whether at home or at work, thermal comfort is an important ingredient in human health and performance.


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In northern latitudes many people struggle to stay warm in the winter. About 8% of the European Union population reported that they were unable to keep their home adequately warm in 2020. The largest share is Albania (36%), while the lowest shares (about 2%) were reported in Austria, Finland, Switzerland, Czechia, and the Netherlands. The overall rate of winter energy insecurity decreased by about one-quarter from 2010 (9.5%) to 2020 (7.4%).


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One might expect that countries in colder climates would be more susceptible to low levels of home heating security. But this is not the case. Scandinavian countries report some of the lowest levels of vulnerability, and some of the highest rates of thermal discomfort occur in southern European countries. One reason for this difference is income. In every country surveyed, people with incomes greater than 60% of the median experienced much lower rates of energy insecurity compared to people with incomes lower than 60% of the median.


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Weather plays an obvious role in this story. One reason for the general improvement in winter energy security from 2005 to 2020 is milder winters caused in part by climate change. The 2012 European cold wave that killed more than 800 people is clearly the cause of the uptick in the winter energy insecurity in that year. The Balkans were especially hard hit by the dangerously cold conditions in 2012. Rising natural gas prices exacerbated the cold weather challenge for low-income households.


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Another way to view the data is by the sheer magnitude of people harmed. In 2020 about 35 million people in Europe reported thermal discomfort in the winter. Ten countries are home to more than one million affected people. Germany, Spain, Italy, and France each have from four to almost six million people who struggle to stay warm.

1 Thermal comfort, Health and Safety Executive, United Kingdom, Link


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