Russia is using energy as a weapon
How deadly will it be?
To 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 arrive this winter. Before the war Russia supplied 40-50% of the eu’s natural-gas imports. In August Mr Putin turned off the taps on a big pipeline to Europe. Fuel prices surged, squeezing the economies of Ukraine’s allies.
So far, Europe has weathered this shock well, stockpiling enough gas to fill storage sites. But the rise in wholesale energy costs has still reached many consumers. Even though market fuel prices have declined from their peaks, real average residential European gas and electricity costs are 144% and 78% above the figures for 2000-19.
These costs pale in comparison with the horror Ukrainians have endured. But they still matter, because the colder the temperatures people experience, the more likely they are to die. And if the historical relationships between mortality, weather and energy costs continue to apply—which they may not, given how high current prices are—the death toll from Mr Putin’s “energy weapon” could exceed the number of soldiers who have died so far in combat.
Europe, average weekly deaths per million people
*Scenarios using current electricity-price projection, including government interventions, and assuming a normal flu season
Although heatwaves get more press, cold temperatures are usually deadlier 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 have had a small effect on deaths. But this year’s cost increases are remarkably large. We built a statistical model to assess the 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 deaths above the historical average even in the mildest winter.
Exact mortality totals still depend on other factors, particularly temperature. In a mild winter, the increase in deaths might be limited to 32,000 above the historical average (accounting for changes in population). A harsh winter could cost a total of 335,000 extra lives.
Four main factors affect how many people will die in Europe (outside Ukraine) this winter. The two most straightforward ones are the severity of the flu season and temperatures. Cold helps viruses. It inhibits immune systems, lets pathogens survive longer when airborne and leads people to congregate indoors. In addition, as the body’s temperature falls, blood thickens and its pressure rises, raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Irritated airways can also obstruct breathing. In Britain weekly death rates from cardiovascular causes are 26% higher in winter than summer. Those from respiratory diseases are 76% higher. These deaths are concentrated among the old. Across Europe, 28% more people aged at least 80—who account for 49% of total mortality—die in the coldest months than in the warmest ones.
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, whereas in Finland just 13% more do. Cooler 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 confirm that cold kills. On average, in a winter 1°C colder than normal for a given country, 1.2% more people die.