π Economics
Degrowth: is this the end of GDP?

Reducing emissions: how to be more energy “sufficient”

On February 1st, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Julie Mayer
Julie Mayer
Lecturer at Université de Rennes
Mathias Guerineau
Mathias Guérineau
lecturer in management science at Université de Nantes
Key takeaways
  • Energy sufficiency is defined as a way of organising ourselves to better meet energy needs by limiting what we consume - consuming less to do more.
  • It is now recognised by law as a factor in reducing overall energy consumption to achieve carbon neutrality, by switching to renewable energy.
  • Contrary to preconceived ideas, many initiatives promote sufficiency as a project that creates value in terms of reducing pollution, preserving nature, making financial savings and strengthening social ties.
  • When we talk about sufficiency, some people hear "restriction" or "de-growth", which can lead to opposition. But this is not entirely true. In a way, some see it as "intelligent deconsumption".
  • Considering that doing "less" or "just enough" has benefits may imply moving towards new ways of organising or thinking.

What is energy sufficiency and what does it promise?

Ener­gy suf­fi­cien­cy goes beyond ener­gy effi­cien­cy. It is defined as a way of organ­is­ing our­selves to bet­ter meet our ener­gy needs by lim­it­ing what we con­sume. In oth­er words, it is about con­sum­ing less to do more. First­ly, from an eco­log­i­cal point of view, reduc­ing our over­all ener­gy con­sump­tion is oblig­a­tory if we are to achieve car­bon neu­tral­i­ty. Par­tic­u­lar­ly if we want to switch to renew­able ener­gies, as put for­ward in the var­i­ous sce­nar­ios pro­posed by RTE1, ADEME2 and Negawatt3. Depend­ing on the sce­nario, ener­gy con­sump­tion will need to be 23–55% low­er in 2050 than it was in 2015. It there­fore seems unlike­ly that we will stay on track with the ener­gy tran­si­tion with­out fac­tor­ing in “suf­fi­cien­cy”.

But suf­fi­cien­cy also holds oth­er promis­es because glob­al warm­ing is just one of the crit­i­cal glob­al issues we are cur­rent­ly fac­ing. Add to that the col­lapse of bio­di­ver­si­ty, the deple­tion of cer­tain rare mate­ri­als, and so on. Each of these prob­lems rais­es the ques­tion: where is the lim­it to what we can pro­duce and con­sume to pre­serve and live in har­mo­ny with Earth’s nat­ur­al sys­tem? On top of that, the ener­gy tran­si­tion and the “green rev­o­lu­tion” also col­lide with social inequal­i­ties: a study shows that by 20304, the car­bon foot­print of the rich­est 1% and 10% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion will be 30 and 9 times respec­tive­ly that which is com­pat­i­ble with lim­it­ing glob­al warm­ing to 1.5°C. Rethink­ing con­sump­tion pat­terns of the wealth­i­est pop­u­la­tions is there­fore nec­es­sary for a fair­er tran­si­tion. Not to men­tion that a reduc­tion in social inequal­i­ties is also one of the sus­tain­able devel­op­ment objec­tives set by the UN. 

Last­ly, it has been observed that ener­gy suf­fi­cien­cy often cre­ates val­ue: such as less pol­lu­tion, preser­va­tion of nature, finan­cial sav­ings, and strength­en­ing of social ties. 

How is energy sufficiency achieved in tangible terms? 

We have shown that there are three types of ener­gy suf­fi­cien­cy5, at dif­fer­ent scales of action. Among is “mon­i­tored” suf­fi­cien­cy, which cor­re­sponds to an incre­men­tal opti­mi­sa­tion of indi­vid­ual ener­gy use by imple­ment­ing eco-ges­tures or mon­i­tor­ing con­sump­tion, for exam­ple. Next comes “sym­bi­ot­ic” suf­fi­cien­cy, defined by installing a har­mo­nious rela­tion­ship and syn­er­gy with nature. Exper­i­ments on this are ongo­ing in eco-ham­lets or “low techs” where sim­pler, clos­er-to-nature and more col­lec­tive lifestyles are being explored. Final­ly, “man­aged” suf­fi­cien­cy is more about rear­rang­ing infra­struc­tures to reduce ener­gy require­ments mechan­i­cal­ly: archi­tec­ture of homes or urban plan­ning can thus be rethought out to encour­age shar­ing of ser­vices, or to pro­pose a more appro­pri­ate siz­ing of pro­duc­tion equip­ment and trans­port net­works. These are three very dif­fer­ent ways of achiev­ing suf­fi­cien­cy, but in prac­tice they are often complementary.

In con­crete terms, we can start to ques­tion our con­sump­tion: “do I real­ly need it?” or “can we do it dif­fer­ent­ly?” For exam­ple, by low­er­ing res­o­lu­tion of videos viewed online or unplug­ging elec­tri­cal appli­ances when not in use are small actions which, with­out chang­ing our com­fort, can have a sig­nif­i­cant impact when aggre­gat­ed across the pop­u­la­tion. Anoth­er exam­ple is the “Ate­lier des ter­ri­toires” in the city of Caen (France), which has been exper­i­ment­ing for sev­er­al years with the devel­op­ment of a ter­ri­to­r­i­al project involv­ing inhab­i­tants and cit­i­zens. It has led to the test­ing of pro­pos­als for com­mu­nal urban ser­vices such as shared gardens.

More­over, let’s not for­get the role of com­pa­nies. Social and sol­i­dar­i­ty play­ers and coop­er­a­tives are devel­op­ing eco­nom­ic mod­els that com­bine lim­it­ed prof­itabil­i­ty and val­ue cre­ation. The “Licoornes” net­work, which includes the ener­gy com­pa­ny Ener­coop, the tele­phone oper­a­tor Tele­coop, Label Emmaüs and NEF, is an inter­est­ing exam­ple of busi­ness mod­el that incor­po­rates suf­fi­cien­cy. For exam­ple, Tele­coop offers a sub­scrip­tion that is charged to the user accord­ing to actu­al mobile data con­sump­tion, encour­ag­ing con­sumers to mod­er­ate their dig­i­tal use. 

We are also see­ing the emer­gence of ini­tia­tives led by engi­neer­ing col­lec­tives to debate or exper­i­ment with low-ener­gy solu­tions. In the “Engaged Engi­neers” or “For an eco­log­i­cal awak­en­ing” col­lec­tives, suf­fi­cien­cy has a strong res­o­nance. The LowTech­Lab and the Tran­si­tion Cam­pus are also ini­tia­tives where new ways of com­bin­ing the tech­ni­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal exper­tise of engi­neers are being exper­i­ment­ed with, while at the same time rein­vent­ing projects for “bet­ter liv­ing” in a more har­mo­nious rela­tion­ship with nature. 

Why does energy sufficiency, as a concept, face so much opposition?

I think it’s impor­tant to point out that oppo­si­tion to ener­gy suf­fi­cien­cy is most often in the form of pas­sive resis­tance, i.e. it is rarely tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion. In roadmaps of pub­lic poli­cies, and some­times in those of com­pa­nies, suf­fi­cien­cy is men­tioned but imple­men­ta­tion meth­ods remain vague. Suf­fi­cien­cy is often con­fused with ener­gy effi­cien­cy, which refers more to improv­ing the per­for­mance of tech­nolo­gies, such as the ther­mal insu­la­tion of build­ings. But effi­cien­cy mea­sures alone poten­tial­ly lead to a “rebound effect”: the ener­gy gains made pos­si­ble by effi­cient tech­nolo­gies are off­set by an increase in usage. The gam­ble on tech­nol­o­gy alone is there­fore very uncertain.

Even if more and more pub­lic, pri­vate and cit­i­zen play­ers are tak­ing on suf­fi­cien­cy, the term is still not being con­sid­ered enough in the eco­log­i­cal tran­si­tion, because of neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. When we talk about suf­fi­cien­cy, some peo­ple hear “restric­tion” or “decline”. It is true that suf­fi­cien­cy requires us to think in terms of lim­it­ed growth. But we are talk­ing about “intel­li­gent de-con­sump­tion” which can cre­ate eco­nom­ic, social, and envi­ron­men­tal val­ue for ter­ri­to­ries.  How­ev­er, for some, this is still dif­fi­cult to hear and understand. 

Final­ly, suf­fi­cien­cy can lead to resis­tance if it is only defined by indi­vid­ual behav­iour: injunc­tions that are often con­tra­dic­to­ry, between con­sum­ing less to pre­serve the envi­ron­ment and con­sum­ing more to boost the econ­o­my, or even guilt-induc­ing, can slow down indi­vid­ual efforts. The yel­low jack­ets move­ment in France, or the phe­nom­e­non of eco-anx­i­ety, are an expres­sion of this. Suf­fi­cien­cy is a way of organ­is­ing our­selves col­lec­tive­ly. It is the pur­pose of our research, which explores, through case stud­ies, how oth­er modes of organ­i­sa­tion are pos­si­ble. But mov­ing towards these modes of organ­i­sa­tion some­times requires a par­a­digm shift, par­tic­u­lar­ly in peo­ple’s mind­sets: we are not used to valu­ing the fact of doing ‘less’ or doing ‘just enough’. And for suf­fi­cien­cy to be scaled up, oth­er rever­sals need to be con­sid­ered: for exam­ple, what eco­nom­ic mod­els and pub­lic poli­cies should be used for suf­fi­cien­cy? We still have a lot to build!

Interview by Pablo Andres
1 https://​www​.rte​-france​.com/​a​n​a​l​y​s​e​s​-​t​e​n​d​a​n​c​e​s​-​e​t​-​p​r​o​s​p​e​c​t​i​v​e​s​/​b​i​l​a​n​-​p​r​e​v​i​s​i​o​n​n​e​l​-​2​0​5​0​-​f​u​t​u​r​s​-​e​n​e​r​g​e​t​iques

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