High fuel prices could kill more Europeans than the war in Ukraine

Russia uses energy as a weapon. How deadly will it be?

Consumer price of electricity, € per KWh

*EU-27 countries, excluding Malta, plus Britain, Norway and Switzerland

Tto win his war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin needs the West to stop supporting his adversary. His best opportunity to drive a wedge between them will come this winter. Before the war, Russia supplied 40-50% of the supplies EUimport of natural gas. In August, Mr Putin turned off the taps on a major pipeline to Europe. Fuel prices have soared, squeezing the economies of Ukraine’s allies.

So far, Europe has weathered the shock well, accumulating enough gas to fill storage. However, the increase in wholesale energy costs still affected many consumers. Although market fuel prices have fallen from their peaks, real average European household gas and electricity costs are 144% and 78% higher than 2000-19 figures, respectively.

These costs pale in comparison to the horror the Ukrainians have endured. But they still matter because the colder temperatures people experience, the more likely they are to die. And if the historical relationships between mortality, weather, and energy costs continue to hold — which they may not, given how high current prices are — the death toll from Putin’s “energy weapon” could exceed the number of soldiers who have died in combat so far .

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Although heat waves are more common, cold temperatures are usually more deadly than hot ones. Between December and February, 21% more Europeans die per week than from June to August.

In the past, changes in energy prices had little effect on deaths. But this year’s cost increase is remarkably large. We created a statistical model to evaluate what effect this price shock might have.

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

The exact total mortality still depends on other factors, especially temperature. In a mild winter, the increase in deaths may be limited to 32,000 above the historical average (when accounting for population changes). The harsh winter could cost a total of 335,000 extra lives.

Four main factors influence how many people will die in Europe (excluding Ukraine) this winter. The two most direct of these are the severity of the flu season and the temperature. Cold helps viruses. It inhibits the immune system, allows pathogens to survive longer in the air, and leads people to congregate indoors. In addition, as the body temperature drops, the blood thickens and its pressure rises, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Irritated airways can also impede breathing. In Britain, weekly mortality from cardiovascular causes is 26% higher in winter than in summer. Those from respiratory diseases are 76% higher. These deaths are concentrated among the elderly. Across Europe, 28% more people aged at least 80 die in the coldest months – accounting for 49% of total deaths – than in the warmest.

Surprisingly, the difference in seasonal mortality 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. Cooler countries have better heating and insulation. They also tend to be unusually wealthy and have relatively young populations. But when you compare temperatures within countries rather than between them, the data confirms that the cold kills. On average, 1°C colder than normal in a given country, 1.2% more people will die.

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Average winter temperature, °C

Increase in deaths compared to the previous summer, % 102030405060 FinlandPolandSpainPortugalEurope *

Within countries, more people die in colder winters. But when comparing countries to each other, winter mortality rises more in warm places than in cold ones

Temperatures in the winter of 2022-23 are likely to land between the highs and lows of recent decades. Now that most of the travel restrictions related to covid-19 have been relaxed, the effects of the flu are also likely to fall within the range seen in 2000-19. Energy prices, the third major factor influencing winter deaths, are also relatively contained. Although wholesale fuel prices fluctuate, many governments have introduced energy price caps for households. Most of these caps are well above last year’s costs, but will protect consumers from further increases in market prices.

But the last element is far less certain: the relationship between energy costs and deaths. We estimate this using our statistical model, which predicts how many people will die in each winter week in each of Europe’s 226 regions. The model is valid for EU-27 countries, excluding Malta, plus Britain, Norway and Switzerland. It predicts mortality based on weather, demographics, influenza, energy efficiency, income, government spending and electricity costs, which are closely correlated with the prices of a wide range 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 mortality. When we tested its predictions on flights when we weren’t using it for training, it did almost as well.

High fuel prices can exacerbate the effect of cold temperatures on deaths by discouraging people from using heat and increasing their exposure to 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 figure is higher in cold weeks and smaller in mild ones. A 2019 academic study of US data produced a similar estimate.

Consumer energy prices have had only a modest impact on winter mortality in recent decades, as they have moved within a relatively narrow range. In a typical European country, holding other factors constant, an increase in the price of electricity from the lowest level in 2000-19 to the highest increases the model’s estimate of weekly mortality by just 3%. Conversely, lowering the temperature from the highest level in a given period to the lowest will increase it by 12%.

However, prices have now broken out of their earlier range. The rise in inflation-adjusted electricity costs from 2020 is 60% greater than the difference between peak and trough 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 such as Italy, where electricity costs have increased by almost 200% since 2020, extrapolating the linear relationship yields extremely high estimates of deaths.

Two other variables that are missing in long-term data could also affect mortality this year. Many countries have introduced or expanded cash transfer schemes to help people pay their energy bills, which should reduce the number of deaths to some extent below the model’s expectations. And covid-19 could either increase the death rate — by making it even more dangerous to shiver in cold weather — or decrease it, since the virus has already killed many old, frail people who are most vulnerable to the cold.

Such uncertainty makes it difficult to predict with certainty the mortality rate in Europe this winter. The only firm conclusion our model provides is that if the patterns of 2000-19 continue to hold in 2022-23, Russia’s energy weapon will prove highly effective. With electricity prices near current levels, about 147,000 more people would die in a typical winter (4.8% more than average) than if those costs reverted to the 2015-19 average. Allowing for mild temperatures — using the warmest winter in 20 years for each country — that number would drop to 79,000, an increase of 2.7%. And with the freezing ones, using each country’s coldest winter since 2000, that would climb to 185,000, a 6.0% increase.

The size of this effect varies from country to country. Italy has the most predicted deaths due to its soaring electricity prices and large aging population. The model does not take into account Italy’s new generous household subsidies, which target poorer users. These transfers would have to be very efficient to offset such high prices. Estonia and Finland also fare poorly on a per capita basis. At the opposite extreme, France and Britain, which have introduced price caps, are doing relatively well, and Spain’s predicted death rate is about the same. Deaths are expected to drop in Austria, which will cap electricity prices at a modest consumption cap of a bargain €0.10 per kilowatt hour.

Average weekly number of deaths per million people, December–February

Forecasts from historical model* using 2022-23 electricity price projection

*Including government interventions, assuming a normal flu season EU-27 countries except Malta plus Britain, Norway and Switzerland

For Europe as a whole, the model estimate of deaths from energy price increases exceeds the number of soldiers believed to have died in Ukraine by 25,000–30,000 for each side. A comparison using years of life lost would yield a different result, since shells and bullets mostly kill the young, while winter hunts the old. In addition, at least 6,500 civilians died in the war. Due to Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, the European country in which the winter will claim the most victims this winter will surely be Ukraine.

The damage that Mr. Putin is doing to Ukraine is enormous. The cost to its allies is less visible. However, with the arrival of winter, their commitment will be measured not only in aid and weapons, but also in lives.

Map sources: Copernicus; Eurostat; Energie-Control Austria; MEKH; VaasaETT; WHO; RIP.ie; ECDC; government statistics; Economist

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