General “Winter” hits Europe – Economist: High fuel prices could kill more Europeans than war in Ukraine

General “Winter” hits Europe – Economist: High fuel prices could kill more Europeans than war in Ukraine
General “Winter” hits Europe – Economist: High fuel prices could kill more Europeans than war in Ukraine

Four main factors influence how many people will die in Europe (excluding Ukraine) this winter.

The two most important factors are the severity of the flu and the temperatures. Cold helps viruses. It suppresses the immune system, lets pathogens survive longer when airborne, and drives people to congregate indoors. In addition, as the body temperature drops, the blood thickens and its pressure increases, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Irritated airways can also impede breathing. In Britain weekly mortality rates from cardiovascular causes are 26% higher in winter than in summer. Those from respiratory diseases are 76% higher. These deaths are clustered among the old ones. Across Europe, 28% more people aged at least 80 — accounting for 49% of total mortality — die in the coldest months than in the warmest.

Surprisingly, the gap in seasonal death rates is greater in warm countries than in cold ones. In Portugal 36% more people die per week in winter than in summer, while in Finland only 13% more die. Colder countries have better heating and insulation. They also tend to be unusually rich and have relatively young populations. However, when you compare temperatures within countries rather than between them, the data confirms that the cold kills. On average, in a winter 1°C colder than normal for a given country, 1.2% more people die.

Within countries, more people die in colder winters. But when we compare countries with each other, winter deaths increase more in warm places than in cold places

Temperatures in the winter of 2022-2023 are likely to land between the highs and lows of recent decades. Now that most travel restrictions related to Covid-19 have been eased, the impact of the flu will likely be within the range seen in 2000-19 as well.

Energy prices, the third major factor affecting winter deaths, are also relatively limited. Although wholesale fuel costs vary, many governments have imposed energy price caps for households. Most of these caps are much higher than last year’s costs, but will protect consumers from further increases in market prices.

The last element, however, is far less certain: the relationship between energy costs and deaths. We calculate this using our statistical model, which predicts how many people die each winter week in each of the 226 European regions. The model applies to the EU-27 countries, except Malta, plus the UK, Norway and Switzerland.

Exact mortality totals still depend on other factors, particularly temperature. In a mild winter, the increase in deaths may be limited to 32,000 above the historical average (accounting for population changes). A harsh winter could cost a total of 335,000 extra lives.

The relationship between energy prices and winter deaths could change this year. But if past patterns persist, current electricity prices would drive deaths above the historical average even in the mildest winter.

In the past, changes in energy prices had little effect on deaths. But this year’s cost increases are impressively large. We constructed a statistical model to assess the effect this price shock might have.

It predicts deaths based on weather, demographics, flu, energy efficiency, incomes, government spending and electricity costs, all of which are closely related to prices for a wide variety of heating fuels. Using data from 2000-19—we excluded 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19—the model was highly accurate, accounting for 90% of the variation in death rates. When we tested its predictions on years not used to train it, it did about the same.

High fuel prices can exacerbate the effect of cold temperatures on deaths by discouraging people from using heat and increasing their exposure to the cold. Given average weather, the model finds that a 10% increase in electricity prices is associated with a 0.6% increase in deaths, although this number is higher in cold weeks and lower in mild weeks. A 2019 academic study of US data produced a similar estimate.

In recent decades, consumer energy prices have had only a modest impact on winter mortality because they have fluctuated within a fairly narrow band. In a typical European country, holding other factors constant, an increase in the price of electricity from its lowest level in 2000-19 to its highest increases the model’s estimate of weekly death rates by just 3%. Conversely, the decrease in temperature from the highest level of that period to the lowest increases them by 12%.

Now, however, prices have broken out of their previous range. The rise in inflation-adjusted electricity costs from 2020 is 60% greater than the gap between the highest and lowest prices in 2000-19. As a result, the relationship between energy costs and deaths could behave differently this year than in the past. In cases like Italy, where electricity costs are up nearly 200% from 2020, extrapolating a linear relationship yields extremely high death estimates.
Two other variables absent from the long-term data could also affect death rates this year. Many countries have introduced or expanded cash transfer programs to help people pay their energy bills, which will reduce deaths below the model’s expectations to some extent. And covid-19 could either increase mortality—making cold-weather shivering even more dangerous—or decrease it, because the virus has already killed many of the elderly, vulnerable people who are most vulnerable to the cold.

Such uncertainty makes it difficult to predict mortality in Europe this winter with confidence. The only firm conclusion our model provides is that if the patterns from 2000-19 continue in 2022-23, Russia’s energy arsenal will prove extremely powerful. With electricity prices close to their current levels, about 147,000 more people (4.8% more than average) would die in a typical winter than if costs returned to the 2015-19 average. Taking mild temperatures into account—using the warmest winter of the past 20 years for each country—that number would drop to 79,000, an increase of 2.7 percent. And with the cold ones, using each country’s coldest winter since 2000, it would climb to 185,000, a 6.0% increase.

Italy has the most predicted deaths, due to rising electricity costs and its large aging population. The model does not take into account Italy’s generous new household subsidies, which are focused on poorer users. These transfers would have to be very efficient to offset such high prices.

Estonia and Finland also perform poorly per capita. At the opposite end, France and Britain, which have imposed price caps, are doing quite well and Spain’s projected mortality is almost stable. In Austria, which will limit electricity prices to a moderate usage cap of €0.10 per kilowatt hour, deaths are expected to decrease.

For Europe as a whole, the model’s estimate of deaths caused by energy price increases exceeds the number of soldiers believed to have died in Ukraine, at 25,000-30,000 for each side.

A comparison using years of life lost would give a different result, as shells and bullets kill mostly the young while cold prey kills the old. In addition, at least 6,500 civilians have been killed in the war. Given Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure, the European country where the cold will claim the most lives this winter will surely be Ukraine.

The damage Mr. Putin is doing to Ukraine is enormous. The cost to its allies is less visible. And yet, as winter sets in, their commitment will be measured not only in aid and weapons, but also in lives.

The article is in Greek

Tags: General Winter hits Europe Economist High fuel prices kill Europeans war Ukraine

NEXT The weather today in Thessaloniki: Generally clear with a few local clouds – In the morning and evening the visibility will be locally limited and fogs may form