While political ecology has always emphasised the long term, Green parties in power at different levels now find themselves needing to provide emergency solutions to the blowbacks of social, economic, and energy policies designed for a fair-weather world. This series, “Green Answers to the Crisis”, brings together contributions from Austria, Belgium, Croatia, France, and Scotland, to illustrate how Greens in government are putting forward policies, not without difficult decisions and compromises, that respond to the social crisis in the immediate without letting up on a vision for transformational change.

In Belgium, electricity and gas prices have exploded, triggering an unprecedented social crisis. In case any doubt remained, this has driven home the fact that social justice and environmental sustainability are two sides of the same coin.

In 2020, 21.5 per cent of Belgians faced fuel poverty, defined as the inability to access essential energy at an acceptable cost commensurate with income levels. Since 2020, the prices charged by Belgium’s main household energy suppliers have soared. Without a price cap in place, households with variable rate energy contracts may see a two- to fourfold increase in their fuel bills. Given the close link between energy prices and fuel poverty, a large increase in the number of households struggling to meet their basic energy needs is just around the corner. Many “middle-class” working individuals can no longer keep up with rising bills and are turning to social welfare services for help. The situation will worsen as more fixed-rate energy contracts expire.

Priced Out: The Cost of Living in A Disrupted World
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The different levels of government in Belgium are stepping up to address the situation. (The Greens are in government at the federal level as well as in the Walloon and Brussels regional administrations.) From a Green perspective, three types of measures are needed: emergency support for individuals and companies, structural measures guaranteeing both income increases in line with inflation and gradual redistribution, and investment in the green transition. As financial resources are limited, the challenge is balancing short-term action with the acceleration of the energy transition. This longer-term goal can be achieved in two main ways: targeted support for businesses and households for insulation and renovation, and investment in renewable energy, green mobility, and other transition vectors. The Greens plan to raise funds for these measures through windfall taxes on major energy companies.

Since 2021, an emergency “social rate” has delivered significant cost reductions on electricity and gas for low-income households. A price cap for this section of the population is made possible by government intervention; the state pays the supplier a significant proportion of the bill. Twenty per cent of the Belgian population benefits from the cap. This 20 per cent is made up of the country’s most vulnerable individuals – those who are eligible for social support or whose gross annual income is below 23,680.87 euros.

The “squeezed middle” will also receive help through bonuses, “protected customer” status, a ban on gas and electricity disconnection, and the discontinuation of rent indexation on poorly insulated homes. In addition, Belgium’s automatic wage indexation system boosts real incomes and increases resilience against inflation. Assistance is also available to companies, which are facing both high energy costs and automatic salary indexing (around the 10 per cent mark). Under certain circumstances, companies are permitted to furlough their staff, delay payment of social security contributions and other bills, and apply for one-off aid packages.

The Greens have also negotiated investment in the energy transition – most notably major offshore wind developments – and the renovation of private and commercial buildings to reduce dependence on Russian gas. It is vital to invest today, not only to reach our carbon neutrality targets but also to spend less tomorrow. The cheapest form of energy is the one we don’t use.

In the midst of the current energy and social crisis, Belgian ecologists are being forced to accept compromises that sometimes go against their historical ideals. This tension is particularly visible in the debate surrounding the nuclear phase-out. At the same time, the inextricable mix of social and environmental challenges that we are facing requires ecologists to take a systemic view of current and future issues. Social justice is the beacon that lights the road ahead. We are called to stem inequality via economic and social policies, income distribution, and redistribution (particularly via taxation), while guaranteeing the “power to live with dignity” (as opposed to “purchasing power”) and ecological sustainability. Our work is far from over.

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