Policy brief | Energy Poverty and the Climate Change Framework Law


Montserrat Castro, Nucleus of Transdisciplinary Systemic Studies (Nest), Universidad de Chile; Catalina Amigo, PhD student at the Center for Climate and Resilience Science (CR)2, executive coordinator of the Energy Poverty Network; and Anahí Urquiza, Research Associate at the Center for Climate and Resilience Science (CR)2, and coordinator of the Energy Poverty Network (RedPE)

The Climate Change Framework Bill, currently under discussion, aims to create a new institutional framework to address climate change. The project recognizes as one of its guiding principles social and environmental justice in climate action through the inclusion of the Principle of Equity. Under this premise, it is important that the design of the law includes a integrating approach and incorporates the concept of energy poverty, as this condition seriously limits the possibilities that households and territories have to make an energy transition toward clean energies, and hinders the implementation of mitigation and adaptation actions against possible climate change-related risks. Likewise, against the backdrop of the health crisis originated by SARS-CoV-2, a series of deficiencies related to energy poverty that households face have been dramatically exposed, related to poor quality housing, inefficient heating systems, lack of water to maintain adequate hygiene, and intra-domestic and atmospheric pollution, among others, the occurrence of which could favor the spread of the virus, an issue that is currently being studied.

What do we mean by energy poverty?

A household is understood to be in a situation of energy poverty when it does not have equitable access to high quality energy services to cover its fundamental and basic needs, allowing for the human and economic development of said household’s members.

Through this distinction we can separate those fundamental needs – those that have direct impacts on health and whose satisfaction is considered critical (cooking and conservation of food, healthy minimum and maximum temperatures, access to water and availability of continuous electrical supply for electro-dependent people in health) – from those basic needs that correspond to energy requirements whose relevance depends on cultural and territorial particularities (thermal comfort, sanitary hot water, lighting, electrical appliances and technological devices for education).

It is important to mention that the distinction made above in no case implies a prioritization of energy needs, rather it aims to frame the territorial and cultural dimension involved in energy poverty by recognizing aspects such as the entrenchment, the custom, and local and community aspects of energy use. This explains why satisfying both the fundamental and basic needs through equitable access to energy services is essential for the development of life in society.

Problems associated with energy poverty

Energy poverty in Chile is a complex and multi-causal problem that on the one hand is apparent between geographic zones and climate characteristics and on the other hand is related to our country’s socio-cultural and economic inequity. The gaps that exist to satisfy energy needs originate mainly from the poor quality of the thermal enclosure of homes, the poor quality of wood – and especially wet wood – such as fuel combined with inadequate appliances, the cost and quality of electricity supply, and access to hot water, among others.

In the central and northern regions, the scarcity of water resources in certain localities restricts access to water, thus hindering food preparation and access to hot water, essential needs to ensure the health of the population; in addition, in certain cases access to water in homes depends on access to energy for pumping, especially in rural and/or geographically isolated areas. There are also important interdependencies between water and energy services – also associated with food production – that are mutually required for their proper operation. On the other hand, in the southern region, the consumption of wood as fuel for heating raises the indices of poor air quality annually during the winter months, increasing the incidence of respiratory diseases and putting people with chronic diseases, children and the elderly at risk. Finally, Chile has been unable to establish a housing policy that improves the thermal standards of new and existing homes, which in particular allows for improving their energy efficiency and in general the environmental quality inside the home to reach the thermal comfort of its inhabitants through a more efficient use of energy.

The above description allows for illustrating how energy poverty affects people’s quality of life while also producing barriers that hinder households from initiating an energy transition process to less polluting energy sources and more efficient technologies.[1]

In terms of meeting energy needs, energy services are presented as the configurations of energy use composed of a combination of technological devices and energy sources that are utilized for their use. Thus, for an energy service to satisfy an energy need it must be adequate, reliable, safe and harmless in terms of intra-domestic pollution. For example, in order for the need of a healthy minimum temperature to be satisfied, we must have adequate energy services that consider non-polluting devices and energy sources. It follows that there is a close relationship between energy poverty, equitable access to energy services and the satisfaction of energy needs.

Finally, the current health crisis has made it possible to make visible other obstacles that households face in order to meet their needs. The lack of a comprehensive construction policy in Chile has led to the proliferation of settlements with high urban density and overcrowding, hindering social distancing and isolation, an essential measure to curb the spread of COVID-19. Likewise, the occurrence of the virus in the winter months increases pressure on health services, which are already overwhelmed due to respiratory diseases caused by the cold and the increase in both external and intra-domestic pollution. Similarly, the lack or interruption of electricity services hinders the possibility of teleworking and/or distance learning, in addition to creating economic restrictions or other restrictions that certain households face in accessing services such as the Internet, in addition to other related aspects.

Given that we are in a scenario of high uncertainty about the virus, considering possible future outbreaks or the emergence of new pandemics, it is essential to consider the quality of housing to address problems that we haul from the past and the new challenges associated with the socio-environmental crisis.

Relevant legal amendments

Addressing the phenomenon of energy poverty in Chile requires considering that we are facing a complex and multi-causal problem that differs by climate zone and is related to the socio-cultural and economic diversity of our country. For this reason, the current bill must mandatorily include as an axis a broad dimension that allows for the creation of agendas and programs to tackle this problem. These agendas should favor dialogue between different agencies and bodies in order to improve the coordination of the different programs. This bill also opens up an opportunity to strengthen local governments.

In particular, the bill incorporates Sectorial Climate Change Adaptation Plans, defined as a set of actions and measures to achieve the climate change adaptation of the most vulnerable sectors, seeking to increase their resilience. Below we present proposals related to some of these plans.

Health, to be developed by the Ministry of Health: This strategy should focus on improving the health conditions of individuals and communities by inputting the consideration of meeting the population’s energy needs, strengthening health and avoiding diseases that are caused by energy poverty, particularly respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This is particularly relevant in sectors with air pollution problems. It is important to mention that while Atmospheric Decontamination Plans (PDAs for their Spanish acronym) have as their ultimate goal to protect the population’s health, their coordination is handled by the Administrative Authority in charge of environmental protection, affording powers and authorities to the Health Seremis only in the area of inspecting and monitoring the compliance of domestic and industrial and commercial use devices,[2] in addition to giving them an educational role of sorts. In relation to critical episodes, where the population’s health could be at risk, the Environmental Seremis are responsible for informing the Intendant’s Office daily on the evolution of air quality, being the ones to declare a critical episode. This structure breaks on the one hand the design of the Environmental Authority in its articulating role, and on the other hand leaves a narrow margin for action by the Health Seremis, which can only offer recommendations to the community and have no effective powers or authority in terms of confronting possible risk situations.[3] This is particularly critical in the winter season, with its high incidence of respiratory viruses aggravated by poor air quality, and where health systems are faced with high demand for their services.

Therefore, it is imperative to increase coordination between services and provide tools to the Health Seremis so that their opinion is binding in making the decision of declaring a critical episode.

Energy, to be developed by the Ministry of Energy: This agenda should focus on increasing household energy access and efficiency. In particular:

  • Legislate on the quality of wood and wood products as fuel.
  • Incentive to residential generation.
  • Dynamic rating of electricity prices.
  • Energy Efficiency Law.

Cities, whose development will be handled by the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism: It is imperative that this agenda focuses on improving energy efficiency standards through a climate change perspective. In particular:

  • Housing Energy Classification for the existing and future park.
  • Increase the standard of the Thermal Regulation with territorial relevance, considering as a reference the standard contained in the Atmospheric Decontamination Plans of the country’s southern region.

[1]There are also effects on precarious food storage, school and work lags due to lack of access to information and communication technology and lighting, and other impacts on the quality of life. For more information see:  http://redesvid.uchile.cl/pobreza-energetica/wp- content/uploads/2019/12/11-28-2019-POLICY-PAPER-RedPE-digital-final.pdf

[2] The Superintendency of the Environment is responsible for compliance inspection and monitoring of the measures, and can entrust this annually, by means of a subprogram of environmental compliance monitoring, to the Health Seremi.

[3] However, the Health Seremi has powers inherent to the Health Code, which it exercises independently of the provisions of the PDA, which may result in coordination problems between services.