As we shiver through the first weeks of winter, here’s a fact to give you goosebumps: more people die from the cold in Australia than in Sweden. According to a new study published in medical journal The Lancet, cold contributed to about 3.9 per cent of deaths in Sweden, but 6.5 per cent in Australia.
And here’s another one. Even in balmy Australia, cold weather claims more lives than hot weather. The same study concluded that heat contributed to only 0.5 per cent of deaths.
How can the “sunburned country”, a land known for its asphalt-melting heatwaves, claim more people through cold than heat? And why are our relatively mild winters more fatal than Sweden’s below-zero ones?
The answer is that it’s not the extreme events like blizzards that cause the most deaths from cold. Rather, it’s things like increased blood pressure from constant exposure to low temperatures.
The most chilling fact, however, is that these deaths are largely preventable. The reason countries such as Sweden have colder weather but fewer lives lost ultimately comes down to the quality of their housing.
Commenting on this new study, Professor Adrian Barnett from the Queensland University of Technology has described many Australian homes as nothing more than “glorified tents”, exposing us to much lower temperatures than the Scandinavians endure.
Victoria’s housing stock averages two stars or less – equivalent to keeping a window open all the time. The result is that most Victorians are using more energy and spending more money than they should just to keep their homes at a liveable temperature. Gas and electricity prices are expected to rise, so the cost-of-living impact will only worsen.
For many low-income and vulnerable Australians, heating one of these flimsy, poorly insulated homes is unaffordable, leaving them to live in chronically cold conditions that are detrimental to their health – and ultimately to their lifespans.
And, given that the residential sector contributes nearly 20 per cent of our greenhouse emissions every year, cutting the wasted heat leaking out our windows and doors could make a big difference to meeting our emission reduction targets and tackling climate change.
On the rosy side, the solutions are straightforward. For most Victorian homes built before 2005, spending less than $5000 on basic energy-saving measures would significantly improve thermal performance. Basic things such as ceiling insulation, draught-sealing, thick curtains and pelmets, energy efficient lighting and low-flow shower-heads are all that’s needed. And, given that raising performance to five stars can cut household energy bills by about 40 per cent, a comprehensive retrofit can usually pay for itself in bill savings in five to seven years.
But these solutions aren’t so straightforward for everyone. Low-income households – those who need bill savings the most – miss out on the benefits of a warm, cosy home because they can’t afford the up-front costs of basic efficiency measures, or because they rent.
This is where the government needs to step in, and there are encouraging signs that the new Andrews government is committed to substantial energy efficiency policy. It has already moved to review – and strengthen – the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target, and has promised an energy efficiency and productivity statement later this year.
Ambitious policy is essential but Victoria’s energy efficiency package also needs to include practical, effective assistance to low-income households. It could do that by scaling up the innovative and cost-effective initiatives that already exist at a local government and community level.
As an example, Environment Victoria’s Future Powered Families program helps low-income families to make no-cost or low-cost energy saving changes to their homes. By the end of the program, more than 5000 families will have taken a workshop, trained as an energy adviser or received a home energy assessment.
Many of these initiatives are supported by the federal government’s Low Income Energy Efficiency Program, which will not continue after June 2016, leaving poor and vulnerable residents out in the cold.
Our high death rate from cold weather is a wake-up call – particularly for a relatively chilly southern state like Victoria. In the absence of federal funding, it’s time for the Victorian government to step up to a leadership role and fund these successful retrofit and energy efficiency initiatives itself.