There is a festive tradition in Finland that everyone decamps to the sauna on Christmas Eve to sit and sweat in candlelight before the feasting begins. Some even believe that a fairytale sauna elf, the saunattontu, guards the peaceful atmosphere and punishes those who misbehave.
But this year, few Finns got to enjoy their pre-Christmas detox. Even though many saunas are no longer heated with gas, “electricity is so much more expensive now,” says Anni Sinnemäki, Helsinki’s deputy mayor. “Some people might have [a sauna] on Christmas Eve but they won’t have used it on the Saturday before and the Saturday before that.”
For Helsinki, like other cities across Europe, this festive season has been darker and colder as citizens hunker down amid the continent’s worst energy crisis for decades.
All over the Finnish capital, Christmas lights have only been switched on for limited periods and thermostats in municipal buildings have been turned down to 20C — the lowest recommended temperature for public spaces.
Football pitches that are usually defrosted throughout the winter have been allowed to freeze over, while ice rinks will only be used in lower temperatures when ice forms naturally and will be thawed earlier in the spring. At public swimming pools, saunas have either been turned off entirely or only used on a limited basis.
Electricity use was 9 per cent lower in November than the previous year, Sinnemäki says, and if the situation “gets more dire then it might be the case that all the saunas are turned off”.
The pressure on European energy supplies was massively exacerbated in February by dramatic cuts to the flow of pipeline gas from Russia to the EU — a retaliation for western sanctions and support for Ukraine following the invasion.
Prices across the bloc have been sky high, even if they have come down since a sharp rise in August. Entire swaths of industry — notably steel and chemical manufacturers — have cut production, while governments have poured more than €700bn into subsidies and financial support, according to the Brussels-based think-tank Bruegel. Data from Eurostat show that household gas bills dramatically increased in almost all of the EU’s 27 member states in the first half of the year with some, such as Estonia and Bulgaria, shouldering more than double last year’s cost.
Helsinki is one of the EU’s coldest capitals but its citizens are not alone in their efforts to save energy — and costs.
“It is good that we are saving energy and we have to keep on saving energy,” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said in a speech this month as she warned that next year could be even harder than the last.
Many Europeans have embraced that message, turning off lights and cutting heating not only in the face of sky-high bills but also as a symbolic notion of support for Ukraine.
“Everyone is talking about energy costs and comparing energy bills and that brings people together,” says Elisabetta Cornago, senior research fellow in energy at the Centre for European Reform.
“Citizens want to see businesses, shops, and public entities save energy just as they are doing at home. Reducing very visible energy consumption like public lighting and shop signs, those things individually probably don’t make a big difference but it is about trying to put together a lot of relatively small consumption cuts and the visible ones can be highly motivating.”
The question, she adds, remains if and how long that sense of solidarity can last.
A continental cold front
On the coldest evening of December so far, residents and local dignitaries gathering at a chilly 1900s theatre in the south of Brussels talk about energy usage and demonstrate how community spirit has been galvanised in an effort to bring down bills.
The local commune — equivalent to a town council — has embarked on a scheme to install solar panels on the roof of a nearby school and share whatever energy is not used by the students with the neighbouring streets. At the meeting they explain the project and speak to the audience huddled on red velvet seats about how they can save on their bills.
“[Residents] will pay 5 cents per kilowatt hour instead of 17 cents,” explains Audrey Lhoest, alderman in charge of climate and energy for the municipality of Ixelles. “It’s cheaper than the reseaux [tariffs] and it will help them pay 30 per cent of their electricity bills.”
Christos Doulkeridis, the mayor of Ixelles, says he is particularly concerned about homeless people and the organisations that help them, particularly if “we have a stronger winter” with temperatures below zero degrees. But Lhoest says she is even worried about middle-income earners who have not benefited from government support: “You also have people who receive a good salary for whom it is not so easy to pay these kind of bills.”
People are resorting to “old-fashioned ways” such as hot water bottles to avoid turning on the heating, she adds.
The trend is apparent across Europe. Despite a mild winter, sales of thermal underwear are up as is candle consumption, which had already jumped more than 12 per cent year-on-year during the pandemic, according to the European Candle Manufacturers Association.
“It’s a well-known phenomenon in times of crisis. People spend more time at home and want to have it comfortable, a cocooning effect,” says Stefan Thomann, ECMA’s technical director.
Broad estimates for the reduction in gas use across Europe hover at around 15 per cent in the second half of this year, in line with a commitment by EU governments in July to voluntarily cut demand by that amount. Much of the savings have come from “demand destruction” among industrial users that have shut down production but that should not negate household and community efforts, says Henning Gloystein, director of energy, climate and resources at Eurasia Group.
Even if consumer demand is “super volatile across Europe, depending almost entirely on the weather”, he says, “the heating of households and small businesses is the biggest part of gas consumption each winter and if we can’t solve that we are screwed.”
In Germany, which received more than half of its gas from Russia in 2021, a concerted government campaign to cut energy consumption has filtered down through city authorities. Lights in public buildings have been dimmed, temperatures in sports facilities lowered to 17C, hot water has been switched off in public buildings and heating of municipal buildings in major cities cut to a minimum.
Parents in Munich have voiced concern about the wellbeing of their children because of competitive measures between schools to encourage energy savings and the country’s famed lack of a speed limit has become a matter of national debate. UB, the German environment agency, stated that temporary speed measures could cut road traffic energy use by up to 9 per cent but only the Evangelical Church of Germany has so far applied a voluntary speed limit to its vehicle fleet.
In France, where the situation is made more challenging by the closure of almost half of its nuclear power fleet for maintenance, monuments such as the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles now stand in darkness for most of the night and the shop windows of luxury stores belonging to the LVMH conglomerate, including Louis Vuitton on the Champs Elysées, are now dimmed from around 10pm. Videos of parkour athletes jumping up on building fronts to switch off power feeding the shop windows went viral in autumn.
The skating rink at the Christmas market in Valencia, Spain, has been made with a slippery synthetic rather than ice that requires cooling, while the mayor’s office says they expect that more than double the number of people will visit the city’s “energy offices” to seek advice on cutting consumption this year compared to last.
And lights at Vienna’s sparkling Christmas market have been cut from 660 hours over the season to 364 hours, reducing electricity use by 45 per cent.
Energy saving has also collided with national stereotypes: in September, the Italian Nobel Prize-winning physicist Giorgio Parisi made headlines — and provoked outrage — after sharing a video on how to cook pasta without boiling the water. In Emilia-Romagna, families have cut back on their Christmas meals or come up with cold options to save cooking time.
Anna Rita Fabbri, a grandmother from the region, says that she and her husband have “never-ending discussions about who forgot to turn off the lights” and stay mostly in the kitchen, the only room kept “constantly warm because of my cooking”.
Even in the UK, which has its own source of gas in the North Sea, energy companies have joined a scheme offering incentives to encourage companies to run washing machines, for example, at off-peak times.
Return to the bad old days
For some, the energy crisis has prompted innovation and a sense of resilient wartime spirit. But for others, particularly in eastern Europe, it hearkens to a darker past.
Louisa Slavkova, executive director at the Bulgarian civic education organisation Sofia Platform, says that in post-Soviet countries, energy poverty is common and many are used to making savings. “Electricity shortages and scheduled blackouts are part of the living memories of many generations of Bulgarians — this was what the 80s looked like,” she says. “I remember our parents would burn ethanol in a small pot to heat the cold bathroom before showering.”
The lack of fuel in Hungary, where theatres and football stadiums have been shut to save energy this winter, has forced some to burn whatever they can find. Authorities in the Polish city of Wroclaw had to back down after locals protested their decision to give up on the annual Christmas celebrations in the market square and cut back on illuminations.
Eastern Europe “is particularly exposed,” notes the Centre for European Reform’s Cornago. Not only are per capita incomes lower, but the climate is also harsher than in many parts of the EU and the region has been far more dependent on Russian gas. There is a cultural dimension too.
“In western Europe, trying to save is seen as a badge of honour. In my ‘green’ bubble, people boast about how they are controlling the temperature or taking a colder shower,” she says. “In eastern Europe, they see that there has been a positive evolution in comfort and being able to afford a certain standard of living and making these sacrifices is a signal of going back[wards].”
How long citizens are prepared to put up with even self-enforced privations is likely also to depend on how chilly the winter gets. During the cold snap in early December, energy usage in German households, which are representative of many across north-west Europe, was up 11.8 per cent on the previous week, according to German government figures, but still down 5.2 per cent on the average use during the same week in the past four years, many of which have been milder.
And the worst of the cold, dry weather — known in German as dunkelflaute — could be over. The Copernicus Climate Change Service, which provides seasonal forecasts for Europe, said that between December and February there was “higher than usual risk of cold outbreaks in the early part of the period” but that later the likelihood was for milder, wetter weather.
“It is when it is cold but not windy weather, those are the days we are trying to avoid,” says Helsinki’s Sinnemäki, adding that she is allowing her son to play PlayStation as much as he wants just in case it becomes colder and increases the likelihood of power cuts.
Moment for change
The energy troubles have not prevented many Europeans from trying to celebrate the festive season, however. At one of the continent’s most lavish Christmas markets in Cologne, near the German-Belgian border, hundreds of wooden huts and twinkling lights sprawl outwards across the city from the now darkened Gothic cathedral.
The lights are lower this year and heaters have been banned, leaving a rush of festive shoppers — happy to be able to return to a Christmas market after two years of Covid restrictions — stamping in the cold.
Rodney Ramz, who has run the Old Town section of the market since 2008, says you “can hear people from all nations” and that even though Cologne has cut back, energy saving is not what people want during the season of plenty.
“People are looking for something when they come to a Christmas market . . . They want to escape and come into a fairytale situation.”
Changing the level of the lights is more about signalling good will, he adds, and it was under media pressure that the market really decided to make cuts: “We have figured that the energy consumption [of the market] is 0.017kwh per person so that is about 1 per cent of what a normal bundersberger (German citizen) uses per day,” Ramz explains. “Journalists were going out and saying, ‘What can we do as a nation?’ And there was a question of whether it was appropriate to have a Christmas market and we had to answer that in the summer.”
Almost drowned out by the hustle of the Cologne market, Ramz sighs and says that after the pandemic, the energy crisis is just one more thing to deal with: “We have become specialists in all different public situations.”
But at a school in Berlin, teacher Michael Böker believes that behaviours are changing and could remain entrenched as children, already attuned to the onset of climate change from social media, take notice.
“Energy saving is always a good idea to save the planet and it’s not that way only because of the energy crisis at the moment,” he says.
Böker has run an after-school programme on energy savings for several years at the Friedensburg-Oberschule, but says this year more children signed up for it than normal: “It might be a little bit more in the brains of the children. It is a moment.”
Students have gone around measuring the power output of 20-year-old projectors and requesting their teachers replace them with newer, more efficient ones. Böker also lets them take the power meters home to show their parents. For some families, it is the first time they have thought about energy savings, the science teacher adds.
“The children in school will be a little bit worried about [climate change] but they also see that everyone is driving a car as normal, everyone is flying as normal and the adults don’t want to change their habits. It is something they are keen to discuss,” he says. “It is their future.”
Gloystein, of Eurasia Group, says he is “absolutely certain that this crisis will lead to a strong and permanent energy consumption drop”. The precedent is Japan, where the Fukushima nuclear crisis 11 years ago has prompted a lasting reduction of more than a fifth of the nation’s energy consumption.
“If it stays really cold and lights go off, then it makes people really unhappy, of course,” he adds. “But I think in this Europe is again proving to be more resilient than its critics say.”
Additional reporting by Sarah White in Paris