Skip to main content

We are in a climate emergency. In order to avoid dangerous climate change, the world needs to reach neutrality by 2050 at the very latest. As a developed region, Europe bears a heavy historical responsibility for global warming. But while it is now committed to leading the fight against the climate crisis, notably through the Green Deal, Europe is still not on track to stay within its fair share of the scarce remaining 1.5°C carbon budget. To do so, it needs to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at least twice as much in the next 20 years as it has done in the last 30. This means phasing out fossil fuels and developing new low-carbon energy sources such as renewables as quickly as possible. But above all, global sustainability requires that energy demand be kept under control.

For more than 20 years, the focus on energy efficiency has led to significant advances in the performance of appliances, vehicles, or processes. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that as we approach multiple planetary boundaries, relying solely on technological innovation to save energy will not bridge the gap. On the contrary, particularly in some sectors such as transport, it is proving to enable increased consumption patterns that cancel out the gains – a paradox often referred to as the ‘rebound effect’.

Energy efficiency is about reducing the amount of energy used to deliver a given, unchanged level of service. It’s time to unlock the potential of changing the nature and level of energy consuming services, which energy sufficiency focuses on, as a complement to efficiency. In its AR6WG3 report, the IPCC defines sufficiency as «a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human well-being for all within planetary boundaries». In other words, energy sufficiency aims to keep consumption between two thresholds, namely the satisfaction of a minimum decent level of energy services for everyone within a collective maximum that does not further endanger the carrying capacity of the Earth.

From a global perspective, and in line with the polluter pays principle, sufficiency implies that efforts to reduce energy demand should be made primarily by countries with the highest historical and current levels of emissions, allowing less advanced economies to catch up to consumption levels that provide adequate access to services for all. The latest IPCC report estimates that demand-side strategies can reduce global GHG emissions in the end-use sectors by 40-70% by 2050 compared to baseline scenarios.

At the European level, the energy demand reduction potential has been estimated by the CLEVER scenario, a Collaborative Low Energy Vision for the European Region. Published in June 2023, it was developed by a network of 26 organisations (think tanks, research institutes, technical universities, civil society organisations, etc.) from 20 European countries, led by the French association négaWatt. Based on a «sufficiency – efficiency – renewables» approach, CLEVER provides an energy transition pathway that looks first at the demand side before considering the decarbonisation potential of the energy supply. The core value of this approach is that by starting the modelling of the energy system with an analysis of energy services, it is possible to question the need for these services. It is therefore crucial to discuss and define fair levels.

Through its bottom-up design which aggregates national pathways into an integrated European scenario, it takes into account national circumstances and pursues principles of fair effort sharing and increased equity between and within the countries covered.

At the European level, CLEVER shows that the adoption of sufficiency policies across sectors and services could double the energy savings achievable through energy efficiency improvements alone. It concludes that EU final energy consumption could and should be reduced by 55% by 2050 compared to 2019 levels (of which between 20% and 30% can be achieved through sufficiency measures, with variations between countries and sectors). This reduction in energy consumption, combined with accelerated development of renewables, leads to climate neutrality in 2045 and allows Europe to stay within its per capita share of the remaining global 1.5°C compatible carbon budget. This is in line with other demand-driven scenario results for the economies of the Global North, where a halving of final energy demand may be necessary to allow the Global South to catch up.

Within Europe, the application of the sufficiency principle allows a redistribution of efforts between reducing excessive consumption and catching up with a minimum level of services for all, with per capita consumption levels in Europe converging towards 2050. For example, distances travelled per capita, which are currently twice as long in France as in Poland, are projected to converge within a much narrower corridor. This will be facilitated by policies targeting the most unsustainable consumption patterns, such as a frequent flyer levy.

Sufficiency also promises multiple co-benefits in terms of health, well-being and social justice. It requires the mobilisation of all stakeholders to enable change and concrete implementation at all levels of governance. This transformation, together with the necessary evolution of social standards, needs to be guided and accompanied; CLEVER shows the way for EU energy and climate policy to take the lead.

NégaWatt is a French think tank carrying out independent energy prospective work in order to show that an energy transition is not only technically feasible but also desirable for society. Thanks to the complementary nature and field expertise of its members, the association produces energy and climate neutrality scenarios through a systemic approach based on sufficiency, efficiency and renewables (latest in 2021 for France) and proposes policies and measures for a sustainable energy future.