Greek air-conditioning limits test country’s resolve to support Ukraine

After a decade of economic turmoil, not everyone can agree about how to spread the pain of climate and energy savings

Air-conditioning units hang in the lightwell that runs through the center of the Hotel Attalos, run by Melina Zisi and her family in Athens. (Myrto Papadopoulos/FTWP)

ATHENS — Outside the trim, whitewashed building that serves as the headquarters of Greece’s public fish markets, the harsh Mediterranean sun was baking the port. Inside, the head of the country’s fish markets, a 64-year-old lifelong civil servant named Vassilis Katsiotis was trying to figure out how to use less air conditioning.

Ever since the Greek government, aiming to conserve energy supplies hard hit by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ordered public building thermostats to be set no cooler than 81 degrees, he has been trying to cajole co-workers and subordinates into sweating more alongside him. The old rule was to set the thermostat so that employees felt comfortable. Now the temperature needs to keep geopolitics in mind.

“It’s very difficult. This is a cultural change,” said Katsiotis, whose office in Keratsini, a port just outside Athens, is plastered with posters of fish species and watercolors of Greek village streets.

Greece’s decision to limit air conditioning in public buildings may seem like a simple enough response to Europe’s energy shortfall, but as with so many aspects of the crisis, it has turned fraught, raising questions of which parts of society should be asked to make sacrifices, and for what. Greeks are asking what they should be sacrificing for Ukraine after years of suffering under austerity that cut pensions and slashed government spending. And they question how much they should help energy challenges in Germany, which they blame for a decade of economic depression and suffering.

Similar kinds of questions are surfacing throughout Europe. Russian natural gas flows to the continent are slowing to a trickle as the Kremlin seeks leverage in the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s bet is that by late winter, Europe will be facing an energy shortage so crushing that it will have no choice but to abandon support for Ukraine and beg Russia for fossil fuel. Europe’s task now is to prove that wrong.

Germany is turning off streetlights and telling its citizens to take shorter showers. French citizens have been asked to unplug WiFi routers when they leave the house. And Greece, Spain and Italy — all southern European countries contending with heat waves — are trying to dial back their air conditioning and bear with the heat. European leaders agreed last week to slash gas use by 15 percent ahead of the cold season. If they don’t, leaders warn, some countries could run out of energy for heat and factories.

“Do we want to have peace, or do we want to have the air conditioning on?” outgoing Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi asked in April, urging Europeans to make sacrifices and save on energy to help Ukraine.

Making the change requires the buy-in of thousands of people like Katsiotis, masters of thermostats, tasked with turning government orders into reality. Greek leaders are wary of asking their citizens to do too much after the country endured a decade of grinding austerity that sparked a painful depression. Still, turning down the air conditioning is a quick and effective way to cut energy use, so public workers across the country are preparing to endure hot offices.

The government order “came during a heat wave,” Katsiotis he said, with temperatures routinely zipping toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There were no trees in sight at the wharf to offer any shade.

“How can I convince people to do what they should be doing?” he said he was asking himself. “It’s not like it’s April. But if I can do it now, it will be a lot easier in October” if more energy savings becomes necessary, he said.

To dream up potential ways to save energy, Katsiotis crisscrossed the fish market, pondering whether to use timers for the lights that illuminate the daily catch of scorpionfish and snapper. He chatted with skeptical, barrel-bellied fishermen. On the hottest days, he sent workers home an hour early to spare them the worst of the heat. The fish themselves are the stars of the market, so they have been granted a reprieve: Katsiotis will keep the refrigeration going full blast in the areas where they are stored and sold, since they won’t last long at 81 degrees.

Greece relies on Russia for about 40 percent of its natural gas, most of which is used to generate electricity. The country does have other choices — a new pipeline for natural gas from Azerbaijan opened last month, and Greece also has a terminal for liquefied natural gas that can come from the United States, Qatar and elsewhere. But with all of Europe’s alternative pathways for gas operating at full capacity, anything saved now can help a neighbor later.

In Greece, leaders this summer announced plans for the state to cut its energy use by 10 percent now, and 30 percent by 2030. In addition to the air-conditioning cuts, workers are being asked to save on lights and to make sure to turn off their computers at the end of the workday. The government announced a $648 million effort to make public buildings more energy efficient, but that won’t be done fast enough to make the difference this winter, officials said.

On Sunday, Environment and Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas went further, pleading with Greek citizens about the need to do more to save energy. He warned the country could face rolling power cuts this winter if it doesn’t save enough energy now.

“We must all understand that we cannot behave as if nothing’s happening around us,” Skrekas told the Kathimerini newspaper. “There is a war that is destroying a country and is also feeding an energy crisis the likes of which we have never seen… we must all realize we cannot waste energy.”

But Greece also has faced a dilemma about how to spread the pain of the cuts. Ordinary Greeks faced crippling unemployment that peaked at 28 percent during the height of their decade-long depression that ended just before the pandemic. That era, sparked by the global financial crisis and Greek government debt, nearly led to Greece’s being ejected from the euro zone and left a generation impoverished.

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Now there is a sense they have little left to give — especially since energy prices have quadrupled in the past year. The increased costs have led to a double emergency, Greek policymakers say: one having to do with the supply of fossil fuels, the other having to do with its price.

“The divisions in Europe are getting massive,” said Georg Zachmann, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, who has been following the energy crisis. “The political problems because of the energy crisis are massive.”

Countries around the continent are making one painful cut after another. Spain this week became the latest, going further than Greece in restricting air conditioning by imposing an 81-degree cooling limit on movie theaters, shopping centers, airports and train stations in addition to public buildings. In winter, the spaces can be heated to only 66 degrees.

In an odd echo of the economic crisis, Germany — whom many Greeks blame for the worst of their pain because of its insistence on austerity, a position it could enforce because of its dominant role in the European economic system — is much more reliant on Russian gas than Greece. So there is little desire to suffer yet more pain just because Germany deepened its reliance on Russian energy in recent years, analysts say.

“There was a very strong economic depression for 10 years. Then there was the pandemic. Now with the crisis, people cannot afford any more pressure. This is creating turbulence to social peace,” said Haris Doukas, an energy policy expert at the National Technical University of Athens who has been critical of the government’s handling of the crisis. “The government does not want to put more pressure on society.”

Not every part of the economy is being asked to chip in, an additional challenge as the country tries to trim its consumption: In Greece’s hotels, the air conditioning is just as powerful as it ever was. Instead, the government is expected to announce subsidies for businesses to purchase more efficient equipment and renovate their buildings.

Tourism is a fifth of the Greek economy, and leaders reason that visitors who suffer through hot hotel rooms won’t come back. Even without formal energy-cutting requirements, hotels are already struggling.

“We are not sure what to do, and we are worried for the winter,” said Melina Zisi, the manager of the Hotel Attalos in a crowded part of central Athens, whose rooftop deck sits below the Parthenon.

She said her energy costs have spiked by 40 percent compared with right before the pandemic, and food costs have increased by 56 percent in the past year alone. But she hasn’t been able to raise her rates to match it.

“I would never stay anywhere that didn’t have air conditioning. It’s basic standards that you have to have,” Zisi said.

“I understand someone who wants to be on vacation and wants to have a cool room,” she said — even if it runs up her electricity bill.

But sparing such a big part of the economy from energy requirements forces difficult choices elsewhere.

Greece plans to double the use of lignite, a soft, emissions-heavy type of coal, to reduce the natural gas the country is using to generate electricity. And Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made Athens the first stop on a rehabilitation tour of Europe last week, his first to the continent since what the U.S. intelligence community assesses was his ordering of the 2018 killing of Washington Post opinion writer Jamal Khashoggi. Greek leaders signed energy deals with him before he moved on to Paris.

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Even Greeks who don’t use any air conditioning at all are facing painful bills. Last month, electricity costs were up 80 percent compared with a year ago — and then power companies announced price increases of an additional 55 percent this month, meaning that power bills have quadrupled since last year. Greek leaders announced subsidies to offset most of the latest price increase, but it’s not clear how long they can sustain them.

“I might have to shut down,” said Dina Bilic, an Athens-based artist and jewelry maker. She was at the electricity company’s payment counters on a recent afternoon to make a payment on what she said was a ruinously expensive bill. She opened her small handmade jewelry and home decor store in an Athens storefront late last year, she said, in a small space that isn’t air-conditioned.

But even when the cool air comes from open windows, she said, the energy bills have been so high that “I’m losing money.”

For now, policymakers say they think they’re doing just enough to be able to squeeze through the worst of the winter months.

“We are very concerned about what is happening, perhaps, who knows, from autumn. And we will have to redesign some things or put other measures on the table,” said Alexandra Sdoukou, secretary general of the Ministry of Energy and Environment, who helped design the energy-savings measures.

“We have prepared ourselves for the time being, taking into account the given circumstances,” she said. “If things get worse, I don’t know what we would have to decide.”