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High fuel prices could kill more Europeans than the war in Ukraine

The price of electricity to the consumer, euros per kWh

* The 27 European Union countries, excluding Malta, plus Britain, Norway and Switzerland

to win him In the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin needs the West to stop supporting his opponent. His best chance to drive a wedge between them will arrive this winter. Before the war, Russia supplied 40-50% of European UnionNatural gas imports. In August, Putin shut off the taps on a major pipeline to Europe. Fuel prices have risen, putting pressure on the economies of Ukraine’s allies.

So far, Europe has weathered this shock quite well, stockpiling enough gas to fill storage sites. But the rise in wholesale energy costs still catches up to many consumers. Although market fuel prices are below their peaks, real average gas and electricity costs in Europe are 144%, 78% higher than the 1919-2000 figures.

These costs pale in comparison to the horror Ukrainians have endured. But it’s still important, because the colder the temperatures, the more likely they are to die. And if the historical relationships between deaths, weather, and energy costs continue to apply—which may not, given current high prices—the death toll from Putin’s “energy weapon” could exceed the number of soldiers who have died so far in combat.



October November Dec January February March April 180200220240260


Although heat waves add pressure, cold temperatures are usually more deadly than hot temperatures. Between December and February, Europeans die weekly 21% more often than from June to August.

In the past, changes in energy prices had little effect on mortality. But the cost increases this year are notably large. We built a statistical model to assess the potential impact of this price shock.

The relationship between energy prices and winter deaths could change this year. But if past patterns hold, current electricity prices will cause fatalities to rise above the historical average even in the mildest winter.

Overall fatality figures still depend on other factors, particularly temperature. In a mild winter, the increase in mortality may be limited to 32,000 above the historical average (taking into account changes in population). A harsh winter could cost a total of 335,000 extra lives.


There are four main factors affecting the number of people who will die in Europe (outside Ukraine) this winter. The two most obvious are the severity of the flu season and the temperatures. Cold helps viruses. It suppresses the immune system, allows pathogens to survive longer when transmitted through the air and causes people to congregate indoors. In addition, as body temperature drops, blood thickens and pressure rises, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Irritated airways can also impede breathing. Weekly death rates in Britain from cardiovascular disease are 26% higher in winter than in summer. Those with respiratory disease were 76% higher. These deaths are concentrated among the elderly. Across Europe, 28% of people aged at least 80 – which accounts for 49% of all deaths – die in cooler months compared to warmer ones.

Surprisingly, the gap in seasonal death rates is larger in warm countries than in cold countries. In Portugal, 36% more people die per week in winter than in summer, while in Finland only 13% die. Colder countries have better heating and insulation. They also tend to be extraordinarily wealthy and have a relatively young population. However, when comparing temperatures within countries rather than between them, the data confirms that cold kills. On average, in a winter 1°C colder than normal for a given country, 1.2% more people die.

-10 -5 0 5 10 15th

Average temperature in winter, °C

Increase in mortality compared to the previous summer,% 102030405060 FinlandPolandSpainPortugalEurope *

Within countries, more people die in cold winters. But when countries are compared to each other, winter deaths are higher in warm places than in cold places

Winter 2022-2023 temperatures are likely to fall between the highest and lowest levels in recent decades. Now that most restrictions on movement related to covid-19 have been eased, the effects of influenza will likely fall within the range seen in 2000-19 as well. Energy prices, the third major factor affecting winter mortality, are also relatively restrained. Although wholesale fuel costs fluctuate, many governments have imposed energy price caps for households. Most of these caps are much higher than last year’s costs, but they will protect consumers from further hikes in market prices.

However, the last component is less certain: the relationship between energy costs and mortality. We estimate this using our statistical model, which predicts the number of people who die each winter week in each of 226 European regions. The form applies to European Union– 27 countries, with the exception of Malta, Britain, Norway and Switzerland. It predicts mortality based on weather, demographics, influenza, energy efficiency, income, government spending, and electricity costs, which are closely related to the prices of a variety of heating fuels. Using data from 2000-19 – we excluded 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 – the model was very accurate, accounting for 90% of the variance in mortality rates. When we tested her predictions on years not used in her training, she almost did.

Higher fuel prices can exacerbate the impact of low temperatures on mortality, by deterring people from using heat and increasing their exposure to cold. Looking at average weather, the model found that a 10% rise in electricity prices was associated with a 0.6% increase in deaths, although this number is larger in cold weeks and smaller in temperate weeks. An academic study of US data in 2019 produced a similar estimate.

In recent decades, consumer energy prices have had only a modest effect on winter mortality, because they have oscillated within a fairly narrow range. In a typical European country, ceteris paribus, an increase in the price of electricity from a low in 2000-19 to a high raises the model’s estimate of weekly death rates by only 3%. In contrast, lowering the temperature from the highest level in that period to the lowest level increases it by 12%.

Now, however, prices have broken out of their previous range. The rise in inflation-adjusted electricity costs since 2020 is 60% greater than the gap between the highest and lowest prices in 1919-2000. As a result, the relationship between energy costs and mortality could behave differently this year than it did in the past. In cases like Italy, where electricity costs have risen nearly 200% since 2020, extrapolating from a linear relationship yields very high mortality estimates.

Two other variables absent from the long-term data could affect death rates this year. Many countries have introduced or expanded cash transfer schemes to help people pay energy bills, which should reduce deaths somewhat below model projections. And COVID-19 could raise the death rate — by making it more dangerous to shiver during cold weather — or lower it, because the virus has already killed many of the elderly and frail who are more susceptible to the cold.

This uncertainty makes it difficult to predict deaths in Europe this winter with confidence. The only sure conclusion that our model gives is that if the patterns of 2000-1920 continue to be applied in 2022-23, the Russian energy weapon will prove to be highly effective. With electricity prices close to current levels, about 147,000 people (4.8% more than the average) would die in a typical winter than if those costs returned to the 2015-2019 average. Considering mild temperatures – using the warmest winter of the 20 last year per country – that number will drop to 79,000, up 2.7%. And in extreme cold, using each country’s coldest winter since 2000, it would rise to 185,000, an increase of 6.0%.

The magnitude of this effect varies by country. Italy has the most predicted deaths, due to high electricity costs and a high aging population. This model does not take into account Italy’s generous new subsidies for households, which focus on the poorest users. These transfers must be very efficient to offset such high prices. Estonia and Finland also perform poorly on a per capita basis. By contrast, France and Britain, which have imposed price ceilings, are doing reasonably well, and Spain’s death rates are expected to be roughly flat. In Austria, which will cap electricity prices down to a modest usage limit of €0.10 per kWh, deaths are expected to fall.

Average weekly deaths per million people, December through February

Forecasts from the historical model* using the 2022-23 electricity price forecast

* Including government interventions, assuming normal flu season The 27 European Union countries, excluding Malta, plus Britain, Norway and Switzerland

For Europe as a whole, the model’s estimate of deaths from energy price increases exceeds the number of soldiers thought to have died in Ukraine, at between 25,000 and 30,000 per side. A comparison using years of life lost would produce a different result, because shells and bullets kill mostly the young while cold kills the elderly. In addition, at least 6,500 civilians perished in the war. Given the Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, the European country where the cold will claim the most lives this winter will certainly be Ukraine.

The damage Mr. Putin is doing to Ukraine is enormous. The cost to its allies is less clear. However, with the onset of winter, their commitment will be measured not only in aid and weapons, but also in lives.

Chart Sources: Copernicus; Eurostat. Austria Energy Control; MEKH. facilit who; RIP.ie; ECDC. government statistics; The Economist

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