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03 Sep 2012

Extreme cold events and fuel poverty in Portugal

Extreme cold events and fuel poverty in Portugal

In the following guest article, Ana Raquel Nunes outlines the links between the social, environmental and health dimensions of extreme cold events and fuel poverty in Portugal. 


Climate change can lead to modifications in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events (IPCC, 2007). According to the IPCC (2007) it is very likely that we will see a decrease of cold days and nights and an increase of warm days and nights during this century. Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and there is an association with increases in mortality (IPCC, 2007). On the other hand, cold spells though more frequent in higher latitudes also affect countries with milder winters, were people are less adapted to cold (Eurowinter Group, 1997; Healy, 2003).

An increase in extreme weather events can have impact on human lives due to thermal stress (e.g. death, illness, injury, etc.) (McMichael et al., 2006). Changes in mean temperature and variability can increase the frequency of extreme heat events by approximately 25%, and extreme cold events by around 5%.

In 2000, Patz et al. (2000) suggested that it is expected that in coming years regions in northern latitudes will experience declines in cold-related deaths due to warming temperatures. Some years later, the IPCC (2007) advanced that there is evidence that cold-related mortality has declined in Europe and that cold days are becoming less frequent. In spite of this, over the last three winters Europe has experienced very cold days and cold episodes. A paper recently published on the impact of declining Arctic sea ice on winter snowfall (Liu et al., 2012), presents evidence of the significant influence the reduction of Arctic sea ice has had in the latest cold and snowy winters in northern North America, Europe, Siberia, and eastern Asia. Climate projections indicate that a decline of Arctic sea ice can also mean changes in air circulation patterns like the ones seen during the last winters. Liu and colleagues (2012), consider that these changes might become more frequent in northern latitudes, increasing the frequency of extreme cold in winter.

The ‘paradox of winter mortality’ – the example of Portugal

Countries with milder winters, like Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ireland have highest excess mortality than countries with colder winters, like Finland and Germany (Eurowinter Group, 1997; Healy, 2003; Department of Health, 2009; Gascoigne et al., 2010). In countries with milder winters individuals seem to be more prepared for average weather than for cold episodes (Healy, 2003; Gascoigne et al., 2010). This suggests that they are considered to have less ability to adapt to cold, as behaviours are not changed in order to face very cold weather (Hajat et al., 2007; NHS, 2011; Mercer, 2003). Evidence shows that the impacts of cold can be reduced through behavioural change (e.g. adequate clothing), but there is a lack of available and reliable information and action on how individuals at risk can reduce their vulnerability to cold (Gascoigne et al., 2010).

Healy (2003) expresses concern about the lack of research about winter mortality in countries with milder temperatures but that experience higher rates of winter deaths (e.g. southern Europe). And also attempts to explain this fact through the lack of awareness of risk of excess winter deaths due to milder temperatures.  In his paper, (Healy, 2003) is presented evidence that demonstrates that countries like Portugal and Greece have the lowest percentage of insulated houses and the highest excess winter mortality. Portugal and Greece also have the highest deprivation and fuel poverty rates.

Portugal is an example of a country with milder winter climate amid the highest mean winter temperature (13.5°C) and the highest seasonal variation in mortality (28%) (see table below). Along with these facts, other variables were considered in the study to help identify the risk factors associated with excess winter mortality (Healy, 2003). The data from Portugal presents information on some housing risk factors. The percentage of houses with cavity wall insulation (6%), roof insulation (6%) and double glazing (3%) is the lowest in the group. Deprivation rate (56%) and fuel poverty rate (50%) are on the other hand the highest in the group.

 Coefficient of seasonal variation in mortality)
Source: Healy, 2003 (CSVM: Coefficient of seasonal variation in mortality)

In addition, data presented by the WHO in a recent report (WHO, 2012), shows that of all the countries in the EU, Portugal has the highest inability to keep homes warm by relative poverty level and by household type (figures below). Moreover, the inability in keeping homes warm in Portugal is much higher among households with one adult older than 65 years, which constitutes an exception among the other EU15 countries. This shows that elderly people in Portugal are at most risk of suffering the effects of living in cold homes.

 WHO, 2012
Source: WHO, 2012
 WHO, 2012
Source: WHO, 2012


Research to date has focused on mortality (which is easy to measure) when addressing risks from climate change, as morbidity, discomfort and social disruption are harder to assess quantitatively. It is deemed very likely that there are social, environmental and health dimensions to fuel poverty and vulnerability to extreme temperatures. Bringing together these dimensions will enable us to see a three-dimensional picture on the topic.

In conclusion, gaining knowledge on what factors help increase social and energy justice in adapting to extreme temperatures is essential to tackle inequalities and increase resilience. The integration of social, environmental and health determinants of into the social and energy justice, and adaptation frameworks is considered an added value to understand the determinants of social and energy justice. Moreover these are the aims of my PhD research.


Eurowinter Group, 1997. Cold exposure and winter mortality from ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, respiratory disease, and all causes in warm and cold regions of Europe. The Lancet, Volume 349, Issue 9062, Pages 1341 – 1346

Gascoigne, C., Morgan, K., Gross, H. and Goodwin, J., 2010. Reducing the health risks of severe winter weather among older people in the United Kingdom: an evidence-based intervention. Ageing & Society 30, 2010, 275–297.

Hajat, S., Kovats, R.S.,  Lachowycz, K., 2007. Heat-related and cold-related deaths in England and Wales: who is at risk? Occup Environ Med 2007;64: 93–100.

Healy, J.D., 2003.  Excess winter mortality in Europe: a cross country analysis identifying key risk factors. Epidemiol Community Health 2003;57: 784–789

IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation [Field, C.B., V. Barros, T.F. Stocker, D. Qin, D.J. Dokken, K.L. Ebi, M.D. Mastrandrea, K.J. Mach, G.-K. Plattner, S.K. Allen, M. Tignor, and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1-19.

Liu, J., Curry, J.A., Wang, H., Song, M. and Horton, R.M., 2002. Impact of declining Arctic sea ice on winter snowfall. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 27, 2012 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1114910109

McMichael, A.J., Woodruff, R.E. and Hales, S., 2006. Climate change and human health: present and future risks. Lancet 2006; 367: 859–69

Mercer, J.B., 2003. Cold—an underrated risk factor for health. Environmental Research 92 (2003) 8–13

NHS, 2011. NHS Cold Weather Plan for England. Making the Case: Why cold weather planning is essential to health and well-being. 1 November 2011).

Patz J.A., McGeehin M.A., Bernard S.M., et al., 2000.  The potential health impacts of climate variability and change for the United States: executive summary of the report of the health sector of the U.S. National Assessment. Environ Health Perspect 2000; 108: 367–76.

WHO, 2012. Environmental health inequalities in Europe. Assessment report.