After russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Vladimir Putin weaponised his country’s energy supplies: cutting gas exports to Europe and causing prices to surge. Although wholesale costs have now fallen across the continent, the prices of domestic electricity and gas, compared with two years earlier, were up by an eye-watering 69% and 145% last winter.
High energy prices can cost lives. They discourage people from heating their homes properly, and living in cold conditions raises the risk of cardiac and respiratory problems. In November The Economist predicted that expensive power might result in between 22,000 and 138,000 deaths during a mild winter. Unfortunately, we appear to have been correct.
To assess how deaths last winter compare to previous ones we have used a common measure of mortality: excess deaths. Comparing actual deaths with the number we might expect given mortality in the same weeks of 2015-19, we found that deaths across Europe were higher than expected. Across 28 European countries we investigated, there were 149,000 excess deaths between November 2022 and February 2023, equivalent to a 7.8% increase.
Several factors might explain this rise. Among those that died last winter, nearly 60,000 were recorded as covid-19 deaths. The disease probably contributed—directly or indirectly—to more, but it is unlikely that it can account for all of last winter’s surge. Between March 2020 and September 2022 the official covid death count was 79% of total excess deaths among our 28 countries. Last winter it was 40%.
The weather has also affected the number of deaths. A cold snap in December was accompanied by a rise in mortality. A drop of 1°C (1.8°F) in the average temperature over a three-week period is associated with a 2.2% rise in total deaths. However, last winter was milder than the average of 2015-19, so the cold alone cannot be responsible for the additional deaths.
It appears that high energy prices might have had an effect. Looking across countries reveals that those with the highest excess deaths typically experienced the biggest increases in fuel costs. To disentangle energy costs from covid and temperature changes we have built a statistical model. Our model also accounts for a country’s demographics, the number of covid deaths prior to last winter and historic underreporting of those deaths.
We estimate that a price rise of around €0.10 per kWh—about 30% of last winter’s average electricity price—was related to an increase in a country’s weekly mortality of around 2.2%. If electricity last winter had cost the same as it did in 2020, our model would have expected 68,000 fewer deaths across Europe, a decline of 3.6%.
Deaths in Europe might have been higher had governments not intervened in energy markets (although lower prices bid up demand, causing problems elsewhere in the world). Using data from VaasaETT, a consultancy, we have estimated how many excess deaths would have occurred had bills not been reduced by price caps or lower sales taxes. Across 23 countries our model finds that these subsidies saved 26,600 lives. As wholesale energy prices fall and temperatures rise, the immediate threat may be over, but it is clear Mr Putin’s energy weapon was deadly.■
Chart sources: The Economist’s excess-deaths tracker; Copernicus; HEPI
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “Out in the cold”