In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, gas and energy prices have soared to dramatically high levels. Hoping for a mild winter but preparing for the worst, Europe is now considering energy conservation and rationing policies. Perhaps time has come for the important but mostly forgotten climate solution: energy sufficiency.

The ongoing energy crisis has uncovered the European dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia supplied more than 40% of the EU’s total gas consumption as well as 27% of oil imports. This share is shrinking quickly as Russia has turned down the flow into the European energy system. As a response to this, the EU and its Member States have adopted radical measures to safeguard energy supply and avoid economic losses.

Energy sufficiency measures are taken as winter is approaching
As winter is approaching, different measures are taken across Europe to save energy.

EU plans to reduce energy use drastically

On 14 September, the EU Commission proposed the REPowerEU plan to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels before 2030. The plan includes amongst other things an update of the energy efficiency target to 14,5% (the earlier target was raised from 9 to 13 percent as late as in May earlier this year). Only ten days later, the Commission proposed an “emergency plan” which sets out to reduce electricity use in the EU by 10 percent until March 2023. It also mandates an obligation to reduce electricity use by at least 5 percent during peak hours and a temporary “solidarity contribution” on excess profits from energy producers. EU Member States are also incentivized to undertake voluntary energy and gas savings. The EU climate commissioner Frans Timmermans states:

“Demand reduction is fundamental to the overall success of these measures: it lowers energy bills, ends Putin’s ability to weaponize his energy resources, reduces emissions and helps rebalance the energy market. A cap on outsize revenues will bring solidarity from energy companies with abnormally high profits towards their struggling customers.”

Several European governments are following suit

The French government is planning to cut total energy use by 10% and impose energy rationing as a last resort. The country has launched a program of sobriété (sufficiency) including restrictions on indoor temperature in public buildings. As winter approaches, president Macron has stated that sacrifices by the French people is necessary.

Germany, where gas makes up 27 percent of the energy mix and of which 55 percent was imported from Russia before the invasion, have also proposed several energy-saving measures, including limitations on temperature in public buildings. Private companies are encouraged to do the same.

Italy, importing 40% of their gas from Russia, is preparing an emergency energy-saving plan including amongst other things restrictions on domestic radiation, street lighting and opening hours for restaurants and shops.

In Spain, the parliament approved a decree in the beginning of August to limit air conditioning and heating in public and commercial buildings including shopping centers, cinemas, rail stations and airports.

In Sweden, the government has assigned state authorities to undertake measures to reduce electricity use until April 2023. Beyond this, the political response to the energy crisis has been weak. Instead, the debate running up to the national elections in September saw a revived focus on nuclear power. This captured not only the energy but also the climate policy discussions.

The imperative for energy sufficiency

The current emphasis on energy savings is promising as it shines a light on an alternative, often neglected policy strategy, namely energy sufficiency. Energy sufficiency, in its simplest form, is about avoiding carbon emissions by targeting and reducing energy use. National energy policy have traditionally focused on improving energy efficiency and increasing the share of renewables, while neglecting sufficiency. But research shows that energy sufficiency is fundamental for rapid climate mitigation. In the latest IPCC report on Mitigation of climate change, demand-side mitigation strategies such as sufficiency was for the first time included. The IPCC defines the three strategies followingly:

“(i) sufficiency, which tackles the symptoms of the environmental impacts of human activities by avoiding the demand for energy and materials of the lifecycle of buildings and goods; (ii) efficiency, which tackles the symptoms of the environmental impacts of human activities by improving energy and material intensities; and (iii) the renewable pillar, which tackles the consequences of the environmental impacts of human activities by reducing carbon intensity in energy supply.”

To reduce environmental impacts from energy use, sufficiency policies should be undertaken first, followed by efficiency and consistency (Saheb, 2021). This is because sufficiency holds great potential to reduce GHG emissions rapidly.

Less is better!?

Although the scientific community emphasize sufficiency as an important climate solution, efforts steering towards energy demand reductions have been mostly ignored in policy making. This is unsurprising since energy sufficiency conflicts with current economic, political and social ideas such as economic growth, consumerism and ideas of “more is better”. But what sufficiency research shows is that less could actually be better. In terms of climate change mitigation, sufficiency policies are cheap and can reduce carbon emissions fast (Spangenberg and Lorek, 2019). In terms of wellbeing, energy sufficiency combined with better provisioning systems could actually lead to improved global health and wellbeing (O’Neill et al., 2018).

But energy sufficiency does not mean restraints for all, but mainly for affluent countries and especially for the over-consuming “super-rich” (Otto et al., 2019). This is the other side of energy sufficiency, namely to provide universal minimum levels of energy to ensure basic needs and wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries (IPCC, 2022). We live in a world constrained by ecological resources and when a majority of these resources are eaten up by wealthy countries and individuals, not much is left. At the same time we’re struggling – and currently failing – to stave of the climate crisis. Energy sufficiency responds to both of these challenges.

Person in a woolen pullover with a cup of tea
Although behavioral changes are important, energy sufficiency goes beyond individual downshifting.

Energy sufficiency policies are needed

Although individual downscaling to some extent is necessary, an orientation towards sufficiency requires that infrastructure and systems of consumption and production change, to ensure that all have access to necessary (clean) energy services. Research on energy sufficiency policies have grown exponentially in recent years. Ambitious work by scientists from a range of disciplines have developed policy packages and practices.

The suggestions laid forward by the EU Commission and European governments, such as restrictions on indoor temperature, air conditioning and business opening hours are however concrete examples of sufficiency policies. These are all effective in the short-term. But a long-term sufficiency orientation requires further, systemic measures. It requires a planned reduction of energy use. This includes policies such as the abolishment of environmentally harmful subsidies, energy taxation, infrastructure development, upper income limits and ban on advertisements for energy-intensive products, to name a few. For a full list of existing sufficiency policies, the Energy Sufficiency Policy Database is a great seed for inspiration. Such policies require that the EU Commission and EU Member States acknowledge energy sufficiency as an important lever next to efficiency and renewables. Behavioral changes and short-term measures are indeed important, but limited in our current societies which are built on unsustainable infrastructure and geared towards increasing emissions, not the reverse.

The energy crisis as an opportunity

The energy crisis is by all means a crisis. Low-income and vulnerable households are affected the most. A transition towards sufficiency should not be built on havoc, but on a planned reduction of energy use to ensure decent levels of clean energy services to all. Such a transition does not happen through radical measures in the midst of an energy crisis. But the crisis could be, if the momentum towards energy sufficiency sticks, a stepping-stone towards recognizing the importance of energy sufficiency.

This is a moment to revitalize solidarity and collective responsibility. To recognize what values such as “enoughness” and limitations means for us as individuals and society at large. The energy crisis provides a strong imperative for energy sufficiency, but further action is needed. Only then can Europe break free from its dependence on Russia, ensure energy security and do its parts in mitigating climate change.

Article written by Oskar Lindgren, research assistant in the CCL team.