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The environmental and social implications of energy governance Stampa E-mail

by Saska Petrova*, Stefan Bouzarovski**, Andreas Papastamou*

m g.

in italiano

. .

Most developed world countries have experienced a major restructuring of energy utility services during the last three decades, in most cases underpinned by the partial or wholesale liberalisation and privatisation of companies in the sector. This has been accompanied by the rise of the post-welfare state in which social protection becomes residual – i.e. targeted against the most vulnerable segments of society – while often being provided by non-state parties. At the same time, concerns about energy scarcity and sustainability are increasing the pressure on energy prices, while concerns about the environment and public health are beginning to shape the nature and content of state policy.

Saska Petrova, Stefan Bouzarovski, Andreas Papastamou

In such conditions, the manner in which energy policies incorporate social and environmental considerations can play a central role in the formulation of governmental and commercial decisions. However, aside from climate change and security issues, other social and environmental aspects of the energy sector rarely get any mention in academic and policy debates. In this article, we would explore some of the lesser known, but no less relevant, social and environmental impacts associated with operations in the energy sector. By focusing on the social and environmental problems associated with, respectively, the governance of energy equity and energy-from-waste in society, we hope to highlight the energy policy implications of housing stocks and infrastructure, social policy, health, environmental pollution and the quality of life.

Although it is relatively well-known in Britain and Ireland, the problem of ‘energy poverty’ has rarely been investigated in the European context. Energy poverty is a condition where households are living in inadequately heated homes, which can mean that either the average daytime indoor temperature of the dwelling is below the biologically-determined limit of 21 °C necessary to maintain comfort and health, or that the amount of warmth in the home is lower than the subjective minimum which allows an individual to perform his/her everyday life.
There is a danger that energy poverty may affect millions of households in the transition states of Eastern and Central Europe (ECE) and the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Many countries in the region have recently undertaken significant energy price increases, with the aim of removing the old price structure inherited from socialism, where tariffs were set at belowcost-

There is evidence
to suggest that
energy poverty is also present in a number
of European countries
recovery levels, and there were extensive cross-subsidies from industry to the residential sector. The problem that has emerged in the post-socialist transition, however, is that most governments have been unable to develop the necessary social safety net to protect vulnerable households from energy price increases. This leaves many families with no option other than to cut back on their energy purchases. However, there is evidence to suggest that energy poverty is also present in a number of European countries. Energy poverty may create, and be perpetuated by, vicious circles between investment patterns, politics, and social deprivation. This is because the level of final useful warmth in the home is related to the energy efficiency of the built fabric, energy distribution installations, and domestic appliances. Patterns of energy poverty are thus contingent on levels of investment and maintenance of these capital stocks. In the countries where energy reforms have been slower, one of the reasons for the persistence of cross-subsidies is the fear that energy price increases may push significant numbers of households into domestic energy deprivation, thus causing social and political unrest. But the maintenance of below-cost pricing in the residential sector hampers investment in the energy ef- ficiency of capital stocks, while encouraging wasteful energy practices.
Academic work on energy poverty connects this phenomenon to the poor co-ordination of energy, welfare, and housing policies in the relevant government departments. One of the main problems in this regard stems from the policy-makers’ failure to perceive problems of social policy transformation, energy effi- ciency, poverty, and affordability in an integrated manner. The rise of domestic energy deprivation also appears to be related to the lack of comprehensive systems for residential energy ef- ficiency support.
As for the demographic profiles of the energy-poor, these are not entirely consistent with the more general pattern of income poverty. Even though, income-poor households are also energy-poor, the problem is also present among pensioners and families with young children, who may be at risk by virtue of their housing circumstances. In this case, the emergence of energy poverty can be attributed, in part, to the poor energy efficiency of residential buildings, and the high daily energy needs of such households.
Table 1 shows the excess winter deaths. Excess winter deaths express the rise in seasonal mortality that occurs during the colder period of the year. A large part of this figure – at least 25% – is attributable to energy poverty. Yet even though this figure surpasses the annual mortality from traffic accidents in many European countries, it receives very little attention in the popular media.

Waste incineration involves the combustion of municipal solid waste in a controlled way, in order to destroy the waste or transform it into less hazardous, less bulky or more easily manageable substances. Incineration may be used to dispose of a wide range of waste streams including municipal, commercial, clinical and certain types of industrial waste. It can also be employed in Waste to Energy (WtE) or Energy from Waste (EfW) plants, which create electricity and/or heat by burning waste.
In general, the thermal efficiencies of WtE/EfW plants are lower than those of coal-fired power stations (which have a typical efficiency of 33% - 38%) and combined cycle gas turbine stations (where the efficiency exceeds 50%). The waste incineration industry claims that such plants can aid the protection of the environment by substituting fossil fuels with non-fossil ones and decreasing CO2 emissions, while reducing waste outputs by up to 70% in terms of weight and up to 90% in terms of volume. It is also being argued that WtE/EfW nowadays emit lower quantities of dioxins and furans, thanks to advances in emission control designs and stringent governmental regulations. Dioxins and furans are common names for hundreds of toxic chlorinated chemicals that are highly persistent in the environment. These chemicals have a similar chemical structure and a common mechanism of toxic action. The most toxic is the 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD, which is a known human carcinogen.
However, public advocacy groups and environmental organizations dispute such claims, emphasizing the disadvantages of incineration technologies. They point out that WtE/EfW plants require high capital investment, and that the equipment for the control of emissions is very expensive, typically accounting for around 60% of the capital cost of a modern plant. The large size of the initial capital investment means that incinerators are tied to long-term waste quantities with a constant flow of resources: in order for an WtE/EfW plant to function over the medium to long term, materials will constantly need to be taken from the ground, processed in factories, moved around the world, and subsequently disposed of and burned.
It is also being argued that waste incineration undermines waste prevention and recycling, as it leads to a lack of flexibility in the choice of waste treatment options. Its opponents claim that target rates for recycling set by the new EU framework waste directive (2008/98/EC) are too low and those for incineration too high. Some countries in the EU have already reached the prescribed levels, and the directive is not stimulating them to go further. Moreover, the large start-up costs make EfW/WtE a rather ineffective source of energy production: for example, even though the United States had 87 EfW/WtE plants in 2007, they generated only 2,720 megawatts, or about 0.4 percent, of the country’s total electricity supply. Health organizations are also concerned about the pollution and health impacts of these plants, which might produce toxic byproducts like dioxins and furans with carcinogenic effects. In addition to air and water emissions, incinerators create toxic ash that must then be especially treated or disposed of on landfills.
Environmental organizations insist that alternative technologies such as the anaerobic digestion or gasification of source-separated organic waste (such as kitchen scraps and garden waste) or residual mixed waste (which is left after the recycling and composting household waste) represent better no-burn alternatives for waste treatment and energy production. They point out that waste incineration lies at one of the lowest points of the waste pyramid, and that waste treatment strategies should emphasize more sustainable approaches such as prevention and minimization. The sheer range of disagreements among the proponents and opponents of waste to energy plants demonstrates that policy debates over the issue will attract public interest for years to come.

Both of the cases we have illustrated above are examples where social and environmental considerations are deeply entwined in the implementation of energy policies at different levels of governance. The level of public participation, the time scales of decision making as well as an awareness of the wider spatial implications of energy policies is necessary in the cases of both energy poverty and energy from waste in order to consider these questions adequately.

* Charles University, Czech Republic
** University of Birmingham, UK | Charles University, Czech Republic | Gdansk University, Poland
*** First Secretary Economic Affairs Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations

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