Just a few months after another record-breaking summer of heat waves, European cities are bracing for a potentially devastating energy crisis in the face of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. While the unseasonably warm weather this autumn postponed some of the pain of energy price hikes and shortages thus far, winter looms.
Exorbitant energy costs will hurt every aspect of city life, from comfort at home to local employment, culture, and small businesses. Household energy bills are skyrocketing, public buildings have cut hot water, and the bright lights of holiday fairs and popular landmarks are being switched off.
Restaurants, local manufacturers, and other small businesses are being forced to cap either heating, lighting, open hours or staffing, to operate by candlelight, or to temporarily close to avoid rising energy costs.
With the shock of COVID-19 barely behind them, small businesses are now seeing their monthly energy bills more than triple from 2,000€ in 2021 to €7,000€ this year in Europe.
Like COVID-19 and climate change, the energy crisis is revealing urban inequalities as well. Wealthier residents already consumed roughly double the amount of energy as low-income ones before the energy crisis began, contributing disproportionately to climate change.
Now, surging costs could bust the budget of low-income residents: forecasters predict that UK residents’ energy bills could rise as high as 23€ a day by April 2023, plunging 10.7 million households into fuel poverty, while gas surcharges in Germany could cost families up to 500€ more per year.
Households in the wealthiest areas of Paris
consume the most energy
Fail to plan, plan to fail: cities light the way
Cities can take short-term action by establishing emergency plans that include rendezvous points and evacuation procedures in case of blackouts. They can set up warming centres in major public spaces, and capping energy consumption in buildings and streetscapes, as German cities HanoverandLudwigshafen have already done.
Cities can also seize the moment to increase their impact on fighting climate change by making energy saving measures permanent. One electronic advertising screen consumes as much electricity as three households. A digital billboard can consume up to 30 times the energy of a single household. Since September 1st, Berlin has limited the lighting of digitised advertisements and landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate to between 16:00 and 22:00.
Electronic advertising screens are being targeted for their energy consumption
Meanwhile, Paris is switching off the Eiffel Tower’s lights an hour early, has lowered the water temperature in municipal pools, pushed back the date for heating public buildings, and capped the heating in public buildings at 18°C.
Vienna hopes to reduce energy consumption by up to 20% by encouraging restaurants and shops to cap temperatures at 18°C, and will cut the hours that Christmas markets spend illuminated by almost half.
Brussels City Council has approved an energy package that bans rent increases for those living in high energy consumption housing, amounting to almost half of households.
Amsterdam will spend €8.5 million next year to insulate the homes of vulnerable residents.
National governments up the ante
Despite their best efforts, the impact of energy-cutting actions taken solely by cities is limited, and a large-scale winter energy crisis may threaten broader social cohesion, with the possibility of civil unrest. The Eiffel Tower’s early bedtime will only save the equivalent of 56 French residents’ energy consumption a year while the City of Paris’s 2022 energy bill will still be 35 million euro higher than normal. This means national governments must step up.
In March 2022, France adopted several initiatives to combat climate change, including a ban on heated terraces at cafes and restaurants. This measure alone will cut the emissions equivalent of 300,000 cars every year. This winter, Lithuania plans to make a 10% reduction in energy consumption in its 500 state-owned housing properties.
In August, Spain took several significant actions to both restrict energy consumption and protect residents from runaway costs. Profits from a windfall tax on energy companies are being used to keep household energy costs down, and commuter trains have been made free to discourage the use of cars. Shops and buildings are now required to turn off display lights after 22:00, and their doors must be kept closed to conserve heat in the winter.
Accelerating climate resiliency efforts in cities
While these efforts help, even the most aggressive cities on climate change are still far from reaching net zero emissions goals or significantly reducing their energy dependency. Cities are responsible for 66% of the world’s energy consumption and 70% of its emissions. Only an aggressive, coordinated effort between local and national governments and international organisations, can create lasting changes on the necessary scale.
Local and national governments can start by making emergency measures permanent and prioritising the energy-efficiency conversion of city buildings, which will reduce susceptibility to energy crises, create green jobs, and fight climate change.
National governments can also replicate and scale up cities’ aggressive energy efficiency standards: 88% of OECD cities and regions have higher building energy efficiency standards than the national level, with 25% calling for net-zero emissions. A massive acceleration in home renovations, starting with social housing stock, could drastically reduce energy poverty and cut dependence on gas.
It may mean drafty restaurants, dimmer monuments and building renovations, but the inconveniences of these energy-cutting efforts are worth the trouble to insulate city residents from energy scarcity and advance the fight against climate change. In the face of yet another report showing that countries’ efforts to cool the planet remain insufficient, cities must turn this winter’s energy crisis into an opportunity.
Read the OECD work on energy in cities here.
Andrew Lombardi is a Policy Analyst at the Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development Division of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) where he supports the OECD Champion Mayors initiative's work on issues related to inclusive growth, affordable housing, sustainable urban transport, spatial planning, and innovation and data use in cities, as well as CFE projects on land value capture, the future of city centres, and opportunities for midsized cities. Before coming to Paris, Andrew worked in city government in New York, NY, and has conducted urban policy research in Mexico City, Manila, and Barcelona. He holds a Master’s degree from Sciences Po in urban governance and policy.