Striking a Balance – The Role of Sufficiency in the Energy Transition

Sufficiency has been an important topic at the Oeko-Institut for over a decade. As early as 2013, the Oeko-Institut conducted a study that had a lasting impact on the discussion about sufficiency in Germany. Carina Zell-Ziegler is currently working on a five-year project on the topic of energy sufficiency in Germany. In the meantime, the discourse has also reached the European level. In this context, the Oeko-Institut, together with Vito / EnergyVille and for the EEA, has written a study on the term „sufficiency“. The key findings are presented in this article.

Eight key findings

1. Sufficiency is more than behavioural change

Sufficiency is a concept that goes beyond individual behavioural change to encompass structural changes in society and organizations. It involves a shift to less resource-intensive production and consumption patterns, which can be achieved through a range of policies and cultural shifts. These policies include regulations, incentives, educational campaigns, planning and urban strategies and codes.

Indeed, sufficiency does not just come down to changing behaviours or policies. It is also a matter of transforming mental models and systems that encourage resource-intensive production and consumption.

Of course, these mental models can reinforce or challenge the dominant societal values and norms that prioritize economic growth and consumption over environmental and social well-being. “

One example is the sufficiency approach in the construction industry, where reuse and renovation are preferred to demolition and new construction. Existing structures can then be reused thanks to energy-efficient renovations – not only expanding their lifespan, but also adapting their function. Combined with approaches to redistribute the per capita living space more equally, for example with a moving bonus or more modular construction, sufficiency practices reduce waste production, resource consumption, excess heated and cooled living space and the need to build more and more houses. This approach is not only useful in the construction industry and housing sector, but can be implemented in many different sectors, from mobility to food, clothing, goods, and leisure.

2. Sufficiency is pivotal to reaching deep sustainability

The concept of sustainability has focused on improving energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewable energy. However, these measures alone are not enough. To complement efficiency and renewable energy sources, sufficiency emphasizes the need to reduce overall resource and energy consumption. This can only be achieved through a fundamental change in the way we individually and collectively produce and consume goods and services.

3. Sufficiency has many benefits

By reducing resource consumption, sufficiency can help to address a range of environmental challenges and stop the further crossing of planetary boundaries, including – but not limited to – climate change. At the same time, sufficiency can lead to the development of new sustainable products and services. This creates the possibility of new jobs and economic opportunities once new economic models are implemented, namely circular economy and Product as a Service.

In addition, switching to behaviour that consumes fewer resources also carries secondary benefits. This is the case, for example, for health, well-being, and quality of life. Indeed, by including sufficiency in other energy transition strategies, policymakers can ensure that the transition to cleaner energy sources benefits everyone in society. Examples include fighting energy poverty, preventing environmental degradation, and promoting sustainable lifestyles that conserve resources. Thus, sufficiency contributes to an energy system that is not only more balanced, but also more fair. And that is precisely a fundamental goal of a just energy transition.

However, there is a fear among policymakers and economists that sufficiency could lead to a degrowth of the economy. Therefore further research is needed to understand the economic implications of sufficiency and economic progress indicators, which include wellbeing, social and ecological factors.

4. Sufficiency has a high mitigation potential

According to several studies – including the 2022 IPCC report – sufficiency measures can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that implementing demand-side mitigation options including sufficiency could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 40-70% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.

5. Sufficiency is not being addressed in the EU as a separate subject

On the path to becoming climate neutral by 2050, energy sufficiency has not been addressed as ambitiously in European legislation.

More ambitious policies and targets are needed to reach climate neutrality. Therefore, policymakers should be ready to implement policies that encourage the reduction of consumption. These include promoting public transportation, reducing air travel, consuming on a local scale while also consuming less in general, greening, and preventing food waste.

For now, sufficiency does not yet receive full attention and support from policymakers, partly because it focuses on the consumption patterns of individuals and organisations. In France, for example, sufficiency policies have only found attention and support in recent years. The 2021 national elections were an important tipping point in this regard, as official bodies published climate neutrality scenarios in which sufficiency was seen as a viable option, reinforcing its credibility.

6. Citizens call for more sufficiency policies

Even though sufficiency is not yet politically mainstreamed, citizens do seem to be calling for more sufficiency policies. In the European Citizens Panel on „Climate Change and the Environment/Health,“ about 50% of the total policy recommendations were related to sufficiency. Most of these policy recommendations were found in the transport sector and were supported by at least 70% of the 200 citizens from all EU member states who participated in the panel.

Policy should therefore recognise the importance of involving citizens in the policymaking process and ensure that policies are designed based on citizens’ preferences.

7. A budget approach would support sufficiency

Carbon budgets are tools that can help reduce a person’s or organization’s carbon consumption. Combined with targets, limits and pricing mechanisms for carbon emissions and consumption, these policies create incentives for consumers to reduce their environmental impact. In addition, providing information on the carbon footprint of goods and services can enable consumers to make more informed and sustainable consumption choices.

Nevertheless, implementing carbon budget instruments on a larger scale can be challenging. Indeed, this would require coherent synchronisation with local policies. Carbon budgets could be aligned with existing policies such as the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS),  but their design and implementation would need to be tailored to the specific national context. Thus, to ensure computability and minimise potential conflicts, it is important that all this is done at the national level.   

8. We need more sufficiency modelling and indicators

More sufficiency modelling and indicators can provide a more comprehensive and nuanced analysis of sufficiency. Using systems thinking with modelling can help identify the most effective decarbonization pathways by considering the interdependent social, economic, environmental, and behavioural factors.

By analysing sufficiency strategies in a modelled systemic framework, policymakers, businesses and end users can gain greater clarity about the benefits and make trade-offs associated with different policy options.

Carina Zell-Ziegler is a researcher in the Institute’s Energy & Climate Division in Berlin. Her expertise includes the evaluation and impact assessment of climate protection measures, especially sufficiency measures, as well as the modelling and analysis of emission developments.

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