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The troika's Greek winter: Cold and Asphyxiating

by talos Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 05:40:19 PM EST


Athens has been covered on and off these past couple of months by a thick smog produced by smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves. This is not strictly of course an Athenian phenomenon: all over Greece (and especially Northern Greece) towns and cities are enveloped this winter by an acrid smelling smog consisting of burning wood fumes and ashes, mingled with all sorts of toxic substances. As with most of the societal plagues brought on Greece these past few years, this too is a direct result of troikan austerity gone wild and a Greek government unable to protect its citizens.

The troika demanded and the Greek government acquiesced to, a tax increase on heating oil, the stuff that powers most central heating in Greek buildings, bringing its price at the same level as transportation gas. Already the price of a litre of gas at the pump in Greece was the highest in the EU, thanks to previous rounds of taxes on gas mandated by the troika. Gas prices went up by over 50% in Greece since 2009, mostly due to excise taxes. This, combined with a decline in real average income in the country of around 40-50%, led to a decrease in tax receipts from gas taxes of the order of 1.5 billion Euros.


Now apparently as heating oil has become a luxury that most people cannot afford (and with most of the population living in apartment buildings, if one resident in a block of flats cannot afford it, this means that the whole building does not buy heating oil and everyone is on their own to figure out a way to keep warm) consumption has reportedly dropped by as much as 80%. This means that alternatives to central heating must be found. Thus a lot of people turn to electric, grid powered heaters (your's truly included), that are now cheaper than oil and as many use fireplaces, and old wood stoves, occasionally with tragic consequences.

We are now discovering that picturesque and traditional methods of heating seen in villages don't scale. In fact I just realized how darn environmentally friendly heating oil is compared to burning things in a fireplace or a stove. And I do mean things: "People are burning furniture, plastic, construction materials and even their slippers" to heat themselves when it does get cold. This makes the toxic mix of deleterious fumes covering major cities, even more unhealthy:

"A group of scientists from seven research centres are taking smog readings in several cities through February 10th to assess the environmental impact from the increased use of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, the Athens network SKAI TV reported.

The scientists, together with the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, have warned that burning wood in the home releases 30 times more air pollution than using a well-maintained heating oil or gas-burning boiler.

They found that concentrations of particulates in the atmosphere from wood smoke increased 200 percent from December 2010 to the same period  in 2012, stressing that the problem is especially acute at night, when demand for heating increases. The centre warned an increase in air pollution can lead to respiratory problems as well as aggravating allergies and disturb the neurological and reproductive systems.

The price of firewood has, naturally, doubled since last year, so the incentive to chop down trees in forests and parks is great. In fact both parks and national forests have suffered great losses:

As winter temperatures bite, that trend is dealing a serious blow to the environment, as hillsides are denuded of timber and smog from fires clouds the air in Athens and other cities, posing risks to public health.

The number of illegal logging cases jumped in 2012, said forestry groups, while the environment ministry has lodged more than 3,000 lawsuits and seized more than 13,000 tons of illegally cut trees.

Such woodcutting was last common in Greece during Germany's brutal occupation in the 1940s, underscoring how five years of recession and waves of austerity measures have spawned drastic measures

As one could have easily imagined in the first place, the measure flopped revenue-wise:

Oil suppliers claim of a 75-80% sales decrease for the period October-November-December 2012, when compared to the same period of 2011. Greek Fuel Suppliers Association estimates that the black hole in the state pockets are 400 million euro due to the sharp decrease in heating oil sales.

The Finance Minister, Yiannis Stournaras, an Economics Professor, Banker and former head of the Greek Industrialists' Economic Think Tank IOBE, was however adamant, having the perfect economics background to help him deny what is palpably (indeed chillingly) evident to every bloody citizen in the country: He has refused any extra aid to poor families, advising the freezing to "to be patient for another year" and wait out the cold. Really. And he also attributed the collapse of heating-oil revenues to "people having stockpiled heating oil from last year" despite the fact that it is consumption of heating oil that has declined by 80%. Obviously the economic cult he belongs to is loathe to price-in "externalities" such as health effects, fire hazards and illegal wood-cutting. The troika however seems happy with the results - and who are the victims of its policies to disagree? (although allegedly the troika demanded leveling the tax on heating and transport oil, to fight smuggling, but didn't state to what level - it was Stournaras who chose the highest of the two prices). Since people are turning to the power grid for heating BTW, a pinch of "energy liberalization" will see that this too becomes untenable, as electricity consumers will see a 9% hike on their bills (higher for smaller consumptions, smaller for larger ones!), pending a rumoured 20% increase spread over 2013. Already the Public Power Corporation is cutting off power to customers that can't pay at a rate of 30.000 connections a month! This means that ~300-500.000 households in Greece are living without electricity - literally powerless. Truly an achievement worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize...

The heating debacle is the perfect example of austerian madness as misanthrope feast. It has no point, it doesn't achieve its stated goals, and it has tremendously disastrous side-effects. It adds one more in the troika's long list of crimes against humanity in the European South and serves to demonstrate the imbecility of the current government and its experts...


[Cross-posted at Histologion]

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Greece is the canary in the coal mine of global capitalism... Where Greece is everyone will be. Our civilization will be using fossil fuels to exhaustion "fueled" by debt until the point it is realized that debt cannot be repaid. At that moment it will be too late to invest in the appropriate technology at scale as our energy reserves will be depleted and climate change will be hitting hard.

Greece could have - over the past 30 years - invested in the relevant technologies (appropriate insulation and glazing, bio-climatic architecture, tromp walls, pellet stoves, heat pumps with geothermal or air, solar thermal heating etc). The technology was there but the regulation for energy building audits is at least 20 years too late and still not proactive enough. Everyone was building to the minimum regulatory requirement unconcerned about operating expenses.

Now we have to live with the consequences...

Thank you Talos for the accurate and evocative diary. The problem is that the lessons we learn are the wrong ones - the troika is just accelerating a predetermined path. Letting oil prices to go lower would have provided a respite (and I agree with you) but they would not be a solution. We can still do better and avoid a lot of unnecessary pain. Incentives are needed for retrofits, prescriptive regulations with a type of mandatory LEED point system should be in place. They should not be taxed from a predatory state. Yet, the funds now cannot come from the drained state budget - it is either EU alone or entrepreneurs - but no one sane is willing to trust the dilapidated state it will keep its side of the deal, and this leads to the current stalemate and accelerating vicious cycle.

Orthodoxy is not a religion.

by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 12:44:39 AM EST
BalkanIdentity:
Our civilization will be using fossil fuels to exhaustion "fueled" by debt until the point it is realized that debt cannot be repaid. At that moment it will be too late to invest in the appropriate technology at scale as our energy reserves will be depleted and climate change will be hitting hard.

In one way, yes. But Greece plight is driven by the insistence by the richest layers in Europe that they should not loose, indeed they want their debt back and huge interest too.

Thus the actions does not even make sense energy wise. Take the shift from heating oil to electric heaters. I am assuming these are direct heaters converting electricity to heat and not heat pumps. With some 85-90% of Greece's electricity production coming from coal, gas and oil you get a big thermal loss in the power plant, which is not at all recovered by the heater. In energy terms it then makes more sense to burn it directly for heat locally.

But saving energy is not the concern here, because then a crash-program to get Greece of carbon would be implemented. It is simply taxes on essentials, that can hardly be avoided. Like the previous suggestion to turn off the power for non-power related tax offenses it is using the dependence to squeeze even harder. In other locations, water is used the same way.

But yes, Greece is the canary because it shows that under current managment any hardship lands on those that has less, and squeezing the poor is prioritised above investing to get more clean energy.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 08:02:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We are in agreement - the current actions are not intended to be energy saving but they just happen to have such an effect (over all - yes the use of electric resistance heaters is counterproductive but most people are now using either heat pumps or wood stoves or they are not heating the entire house with an electric heater but just the area occupied).

Unfortunately, these are forced hardship savings and not planned or by choice. This was the point of my comment - we could have been prepared if we started decades ago - now it is almost too late.

Orthodoxy is not a religion.

by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2013 at 01:39:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem with wood stoves etc. is not just the air pollution, but the fact that a large proportion of the heat goes up the chimney. Stoves with "back boilers" which also heat water and radiators are somewhat more efficient, but not as efficient as a power station. Of course the most efficient of all is wind/solar electricity, but it doesn't always provide sufficient power when you need it most. Efficient building insulation can reduce heating costs in winter and cooling costs in summer but retrofitting can be inefficient and expensive - although, being labour intensive, could nevertheless be a good way to stimulate the labour market. If the EU had a functioning energy policy it would be subsidizing energy conservation measures as a matter of policy regardless of economic benefits - and as an indirect aid to struggling economies, but it is difficult to see what the EU is for, any more, these days, now that neo-liberalism has all but destroyed it.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2013 at 07:59:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Our civilization will be using fossil fuels to exhaustion "fueled" by debt until the point it is realized that debt cannot be repaid. At that moment it will be too late to invest in the appropriate technology at scale as our energy reserves will be depleted and climate change will be hitting hard.

Well, it will be too late for those clinging to the current economic paradigm. As money is a social relationship, it always remains possible to remake that relationship with enough people willing. The crucial thing is the concepts held by those who do so.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 06:22:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, I think it would be too late for everyone irrespective of economic paradigm. If resources are stripped by the current paradigm then there is none left for any other. Even if money has been a social construct for the fossil fuel era - it cannot continue to be so. It will inevitably be pegged to energy one way or another imho.

Orthodoxy is not a religion.
by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2013 at 01:41:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is nothing inevitable about any social arrangement. And there will be a significant amount of renewable electricity generation in place prior to the end of this phase of fossil fuel extraction - even if that arrives in three or four years. With a sensible approach to necessary social projects both prosperity and sustainability can be achieved.

The real problem is more that of a deadly embrace and capture of governments by a run-amok global financial system and the creditors this has created being willing to trash the universe before accepting that the credits they have accrued cannot be paid. And solving that problem is far more daunting than providing renewable energy at scale. But, if we don't solve that problem solving the energy problem will be largely irrelevant. Depopulation will have greatly reduced the demand.  

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2013 at 04:38:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Even if money has been a social construct for the fossil fuel era - it cannot continue to be so. It will inevitably be pegged to energy one way or another imho.

A pegged currency is still just a social construct.

Oh, and pegged currencies is a bad idea. They always fail. Specie pegs is an even worse idea: They create failed states.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Jan 24th, 2013 at 02:49:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I tried to share THIS story on Facebook, but the link under the story simply connect to the Eurotrib site. I added instructions for my friends to be able to find the story, depressing as it is, but necessary to read, I think. Thanks for the diary.

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher
by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 06:30:37 AM EST
"government" is unable to protect Greek citizens from the EU elite? Or simply unwilling...
by redstar on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 07:23:38 AM EST
Both. They sometimes implement, either to serve local elite interests better or due to sheer stupidity, harsher versions of the troika's dictates. Note that the only issues that they will make a stand or have a plan on are those affecting Greek oligarchs

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake
by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 08:13:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I guess I have a hard time thinking of Oligarchs in a local sense...like the royal families of the late 18th century, they are transnational. And hopefully the current crop will meet the same fate, though if Marx is right, this timz it will be fun to watch rather than tragic.
by redstar on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 05:58:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In other news from the Greek disaster: Maria Margaronis explains the latest showcasing of "terror" in Greece, in a new Strategy of Tension used as an attack weapon against the left. While Matthew Tsimitakis writes more about the toll of racist violence...

It's getting even more scary here because the local elites are desperate and seem determined to use everything they have against SYRIZA, including brute force.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake

by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 08:30:27 PM EST
From Margaronis' article:

For the state has two ways to deal with challenges to its monopoly on violence: repression and cooptation. For the left, the Greek state has chosen repression; for the extreme right, tolerance and cooptation. That is its historical pattern and its comfort zone; it's also what best suits the neoliberal model being imposed in Europe.


The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake
by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Mon Jan 21st, 2013 at 08:45:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the recession and rise in heating costs has led to a huge rise in thefts of heating oil from domestic heating tanks, and to thefts of diesel from farm tanks. House burglaries generally have increased massively partly also due to cuts in policing budgets. An old couple recently died of hypothermia and there has also been an increase in energy companies cutting off supplies to homes for non-payment of bills. Fortunately it hasn't been a very hard winter as otherwise cuts in Government benefits to the old, sick and unemployed would have led to many more deaths.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 22nd, 2013 at 08:09:56 AM EST


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