On an island off the west coast of Scotland, 64-year-old Caroline Gould faces a brutal winter. Disabled, she uses a powered wheelchair to get around but now struggles to afford the electricity needed to charge it. She has to ration her heating as a consequence.  

Her situation is getting increasingly precarious. “I need to keep warm because I can’t exercise to keep warm,” she told the nonprofit 38Degrees. “I can’t even lift a duvet to wrap around me.” 

Caroline is one of millions in the U.K. — and across Europe — feeling the brunt of skyrocketing energy prices. This winter, many have to choose between food and heating as the war in Ukraine takes its toll. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been manipulating oil and natural gas exports to Europe for years. But amid Western sanctions, Russia has suspended much-needed supplies of natural gas, plunging Europe into an energy crisis and threatening to undermine the continent’s climate goals.

The U.K. is no exception, with over 6.7 million people already unable to properly heat their homes during the winter months, according to fuel poverty charity National Energy Action. And while new U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has reaffirmed the country’s climate commitments, his government — and those across Europe — are scrambling to keep energy prices down and their citizens warm. 

U.K. hit hardest

Europe was swift in implementing sanctions against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine in an effort to paralyze the country’s economy. And while the European Union has sanctioned Russian billionaires and made commitments to phase out Russian coal and oil by the end of the year, they have fallen short of promising the same for gas. 

This is because Europe has become increasingly dependent on Russia to meet its gas needs, made worse by the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions last year, which put huge demands on its depleted stocks. Prior to the war, the EU’s 27 member nations had relied on Russia for 40 percent of their natural gas, mostly from the massive Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which stretches 745 miles under the Baltic Sea from the Russian coast near St. Petersburg to northeastern Germany. 

But that flow stopped in September 2022 as Russian state energy giant Gazprom, which operates Nord Stream 1, announced it had detected an oil leak and shut the pipeline completely, giving no timeline of when exports might resume. Russia has now cut its supplies of gas to Europe by 88 percent, with two smaller pipelines still operational. This has led to the price of natural gas in Europe hitting a record high of over 300 euros per megawatt-hour, 10 times higher than the United States at the time.

Families are resorting to burning furniture indoors, only eating cold meals and covering windows with newspaper for extra insulation.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the leaks “acts of sabotage” and warned of the “strongest possible response” in the event of an attack on European energy infrastructure. Since, Europe has remained on guard. Norway, western Europe’s biggest oil and gas producer, has sent troops to guard its energy installations and Italy has stepped up naval surveillance on pipeline routes. 

But it’s households in the U.K. that are being hit hardest by the energy crisis, more so than any other country in western Europe, according to the International Monetary Fund. This is despite the country only importing 4 percent of its gas needs from Russia in 2021. Nowadays, it imports none. 

This is because the U.K. — like the rest of the world — is not immune to market factors. Russia restricting supplies to mainland Europe has led to acute shortages on the international gas market, with the price of gas in the U.K. increasing by 129.1 percent.

Caroline’s home is among the vast majority in the U.K. — 85 percent — which uses gas to provide heat compared with fewer than 50 percent in France and Germany. The U.K. dwarfs other countries in terms of the share of electricity generated by gas as well, which makes the country disproportionately vulnerable to price hikes as it has traditionally relied on North Sea gas fields, which are now in decline.

The U.K.’s leaky homes are also the least efficient in western Europe, according to one study. “It’s a huge problem,” says Matt Copeland, head of policy and public affairs at National Energy Action, “and the least efficient (and poorest) homes are sometimes paying twice as much.”

With Ofgem, the national energy regulator, predicting that the average annual household bill would rise from 1,000 to 3,500 British pounds in October, the U.K. government introduced costly support to households and businesses, setting a price cap of 2,500 pounds with energy suppliers being fully compensated for any shortfall. The cap will rise to 3,000 pounds a year from next April, however.

Britain’s gas producers and electricity generators could make excess profits of up to 170 billion pounds over the next two years, according to Bloomberg, citing unpublished Treasury analysis. “Energy companies should not be making excessive profits,” says Antony Froggatt, an energy policy expert from policy institute Chatham House, “they should also be paying more tax to help governments support the higher costs of energy to society as a whole.”

The British government is also giving every household 400 pounds off their energy bills this winter, regardless of circumstances. Critics say this is welcome but not enough, particularly for the poorest families who are also contending with skyrocketing inflation and a cost of living increase across the board.

Copeland expects to see millions of families resorting to desperate measures this winter including barbecuing and burning furniture indoors, only eating cold meals and covering windows with newspaper for extra insulation. He has also heard reports of parents not sending their kids to school because they can’t afford the electricity to wash their uniforms. 

Climate goal conflicts

Europe’s gas prices have fallen since a record high in August, as mild autumn weather decreased demand. Across Europe, the overall storage levels are at an average of 95 percent, according to a report from the International Energy Agency, which has fueled some optimism going into the winter.

But this is far from the end of the energy crisis. A lot depends on how much European governments are forced to deplete their gas reserves this winter due to the war in Ukraine. And with a likely decline in Russian pipeline deliveries next year and the risk of them halting completely, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol warned that “Europe is set to face an even sterner challenge next winter.”

The energy crisis is also calling into question Europe’s climate goals. Faced with widespread blackouts and rationing, some countries have been forced to resort to coal, the most polluting fossil fuel. Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Greece and Hungary plan to extend the lifetime of coal plants and reopen those that have been closed. 

“In the short term, we will be burning more coal,” says Michael Bradshaw, professor of global energy at Warwick Business School, “(and) emissions will be higher than they might have been.” He remains optimistic, however, explaining that “in the longer term, it’s about accelerating the pace of low carbon transition.”

“Europe is set to face an even sterner challenge next winter.”

The war in Ukraine has forced Europe’s hand, making renewable energy more enticing from a security perspective but also economically as the price of renewables hits record lows. In May, the European Commission unveiled a new plan, REPowerEU, that aims to mobilize up to 300 billion euros to achieve total independence from Russian fossil fuels before the end of the decade. It also expands the EU’s targets for renewable energy for 2030, from 40 percent to 45 percent of all total energy produced.

But there was a heavy price tag on Europe’s climate agenda even before the events of the past year, casting doubt on how achievable these goals are. “The amounts of money put aside by governments to cushion consumers against this crisis isn’t sustainable,” says Bradshaw, “particularly if it stimulates a recession.” 

In the U.K., the situation is more uncertain after Sunak became the country’s third prime minister in three months. Sunak has recommitted to U.K.’s ambition to hit net zero by 2050, but he has fallen short of reversing his predecessor’s decision to ramp up oil and gas drilling in the North Sea under mounting pressure to somehow ease the burden on British households. 

But while the U.K. government — and its European equivalents — play a juggling act between easing short-term supply issues and longer-term climate commitments, their most vulnerable citizens are feeling the (lack of) heat.

Caroline is far from the only older Briton set for a cold winter because of a war thousands of miles away. Ten thousand people already die each year due to cold homes and many fear that the rise in energy and food prices could lead to even more excess deaths. The U.K.’s National Health Service has called it a “humanitarian crisis.” At least one health service board is already in talks with funeral directors to ensure cremations and burials can keep pace with demand.  

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.