With the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, many are becoming more aware of the link between keeping warm and maintaining good health. But more than a ‘nice to have’, energy and health are inextricably linked.
Access to clean, sustainable, and affordable energy is crucial to achieving health and wellbeing for communities. The flip side is that risks from carbon intensive energy sources amplifies the harm to health and wellbeing.
Britain is now experiencing a freezing winter that is intensifying the impact of the energy price-fuelled cost-of-living crisis. This crisis is the number one issue for people across Britain, with household energy bills set to force millions into fuel poverty, having to choose between heating and eating. Experts have warned that the energy bills crisis threatens to set back health equality in the UK by decades by reversing progress towards affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy. Fuel poverty can directly and indirectly impact people’s mental and physical health. For example, exposure to cold temperatures is known to be associated with increased blood pressure, inflammation, heart attack,and stroke risks, regardless of age or gender. According to national fuel poverty charity NEA, 8,500 deaths in the UK were due to a cold home in 2020.
“A health-centred response to the current crises would still provide the opportunity to deliver a low-carbon, resilient, healthy future.” – Professor Anthony Costello, co-chair of the Lancet Countdown.
Rapidly cutting fossil fuel burning would deliver immediate health benefits such as preventing a million or more early deaths caused by air pollution a year. The health benefits include cleaner air and more livable cities. Fossil fuel dependency also affects human health and wellbeing indirectly, through volatile and unpredictable fossil fuel markets, frail supply chains, and geopolitical conflict. As a result millions of people do not have access to the energy needed to keep their homes at healthy temperatures.
The UK has some of the least energy efficient housing stock in Europe. To help tackle the crisis, we need a nationwide drive to improve the energy efficiency of our draughty homes to deliver warmer homes, cheaper bills, and ambitious climate change action.
But this needs to be done in an equitable way: the cost-of-living crisis has revealed many of the UK’s inequalities with rising energy prices disproportionately affecting low-income communities. Without sufficient support, these vulnerable populations’ access to clean energy continues to fall behind the rest of the population. Those with less access to sustainable technology are locked out of the long-term financial and health benefits that clean energy offers, as well as experiencing worsening vulnerability to future high prices as fossil fuels costs rise. Therefore there is a need to support ‘hard to decarbonise’ households so that they are not exposed to the risk of escalating prices.
Seven million households will experience fuel poverty this winter while energy companies are set to make £170bn in additional profits over the next two years. Government advisors have said that it would cost just £55bn to insulate all homes in the UK. Unless changes are made, vulnerable households will suffer every winter.
Community energy projects have widespread benefits for tackling fuel poverty; research suggests that energy efficiency improves people’s mental health and can be enhanced if combined with financial support and strong community engagement (both offered through the community energy model). Community networks can increase resilience during hard times; a resilient neighbourhood that knows each other is in a better position to offer support when members are struggling.
Accelerated action towards a net-zero energy system will positively impact our chances of creating a just, healthy future. A health-centred approach would not only avoid the health harms of accelerated climate change, but also deliver improved health and wellbeing through the associated co-benefits of climate action.