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Reducing emissions: how to be more energy “sufficient”

Julie Mayer
Julie Mayer
Researcher and Lecturer at I³-CRG* at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
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


Julie Mayer

Julie Mayer

Researcher and Lecturer at I³-CRG* at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)

Julie Mayer holds a PhD in Management Sciences from the University of Paris-Dauphine. She also works as a transformation consultant in the public and private sectors and is a member of the Energy 4 Climate research centre. Her research focuses on the transformation of modes of collective action in the face of emerging risks, and more specifically on climate risk. In particular, she studies in her projects the new forms of organisation that underpin the ecological transition, at the scale of companies and territories (sobriety, sustainable business models, territorial resilience). She is conducting a research programme on energy sobriety trajectories in France and is working on the construction of narratives and tools to support public and private actors in their transition towards sobriety.

*I³-CRG: a joint research unit of CNRS, École Polytechnique - Institut Polytechnique de Paris, Télécom Paris, Mines ParisTech

Mathias Guerineau

Mathias Guérineau

lecturer in management science at Université de Nantes

Mathias Guérineau holds a PhD in Management Science from the École polytechnique. His research focuses on the organisational modalities that underpin and enable the scaling up of innovations (social experiments, technologies, business models, etc.) in the context of social and ecological transitions. He works in particular on the issue of sobriety, as a new paradigm of management and organisation. He is also co-director of the MATIN research network, which seeks to federate responses to the managerial challenges of transitions on a European scale.