Beyond efficiency: exploring how we think about energy

Beyond efficiency: exploring how we think about energy

Home » Beyond efficiency: exploring how we think about energy

How much energy do we really need? Tina Fawcett explores how the concept of energy sufficiency could help us to live within our means.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It presented vivid warnings of the dangers of increasing climate change, and called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to reduce these risks.

The report reinforced the vital importance of transformations to use of energy. These transformations will be about more than just technology; they must include changes to the way our societies organise, use and think about energy and its benefits.

This article argues that the idea of ‘sufficiency’ could be important in guiding our thinking about the future of energy use. This is against a background of increasing civil society concern and activism on climate change, and views within the energy research community that traditional routes to change – particularly energy efficiency – will not be enough.

Slow progress

In recent months, three civil society movements demanding substantial action in response to the threat of climate change have emerged.

The most high-profile is the global ‘school strike for climate’ movement, inspired by Greta Thunberg who began her weekly strike outside the Swedish parliament in autumn 2018. On 15th February 2019, British school pupils and their supporters joined this growing world-wide movement, with the first UK-wide climate strike. In other European countries, school strikes are a weekly event, attracting thousands, or even tens of thousands.

Secondly, the international Extinction Rebellion movement has taken direct action to highlight climate change and species and habitat loss, and calls for radical economic, social and political change.

Thirdly, local councils are being urged to declare a ‘climate emergency’ and, as of 27 March 2019, councils representing more than 36 million citizens in Australia, America, Canada, the UK and Switzerland have done so. This includes councils covering 20 million UK citizens. These movements are all demanding immediate, significant and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, change is not happening at anything like the rate required. Global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising.

In November, the United Nations Environment Programme released its ‘Emissions Gap Report 2018’, which concluded that nations need to ‘triple efforts to reach the 2°C target’ (which is less demanding than the 1.5°C target in the IPCC report). Nationally, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change has announced that the country is not on track to meet the interim steps to its reduction target of 80% by 2050. This target itself is not ambitious enough to fairly contribute to staying within 1.5°C. Other organisations and movements have proposed much more ambitious targets, including CAT in its Zero Carbon Britain work, which has shown how net zero greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved using technology available today.

What is energy sufficiency?

Accepting that we need further and faster changes to the energy system, there has been renewed interest in the idea of sufficiency. My colleague, Sarah Darby, has led our work on the concept of energy sufficiency. This fits within a wider programme of research and engagement, guided by the NGO European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ECEEE), which is available at The programme aims to bring together current knowledge on sufficiency, develop new thinking and analysis, and suggest how sufficiency policy could be developed in Europe.

What do we mean by sufficiency, and how does this concept relate to energy?

The dictionary definition is a good place to begin: Sufficiency is an amount of something that is enough for a particular purpose. From this, we developed a working definition of energy sufficiency:

Energy sufficiency is a state in which people’s basic needs for energy services are met equitably and ecological limits are respected.

The term energy sufficiency is also used to refer to an organising principle for achieving that state. This definition is deliberately high level and conceptual, and inspired by the literature on sufficiency and the good life. Many of the words and phrases in our definition could be questioned. What are ‘basic needs’? Why ‘energy services’ rather than energy? What do we mean by ‘equitably’, and what ‘ecological limits’ do we have in mind?

Understanding boundaries

Before exploring this definition in more detail, we present a visualisation of energy sufficiency – see Figure 1. This diagram is adapted from the sustainable development ‘doughnut’, developed by Kate Raworth, originally for Oxfam, and further in her book, Doughnut Economics.

Here, energy sufficiency is depicted as a safe space for humanity between a lower boundary where too little energy is used to meet people’s needs, and an upper limit where too much energy use causes severe environmental damage.

Within this doughnut – or lifebelt – everyone has access to the energy services to support their fundamental needs. The inner ring is the minimum energy required to meet needs for shelter, health, work, mobility and communication. The outer ring is the maximum amount of energy that can be used without breaching important environmental limits or planetary boundaries. The external environmental limits relate to the impacts from: sources of energy for human use and the associated greenhouse gases and pollutants; materials used for everything from power stations to wires, heating systems and electrical appliances; land and water used to provide energy services.

This visual representation incorporates the two principal characteristics of sufficiency: the idea of absolute limits (sufficiency as a restraint) and of minimum requirements (sufficiency as satisfaction, or ‘enough’).


Figure 1: Energy sufficiency as a doughnut
Figure 1: Energy sufficiency as a doughnut

Our definition of sufficiency has focused on ‘energy services’, that is, the benefits provided by energy, such as cooking, lighting, cooling, IT-based communication, automotive transport and industrial processes. Energy is defined as the ability to do work, and human beings value energy primarily for what it can do – for energy services, rather than for so many units of electricity or gas. A focus on services could offer the best prospect of achieving sufficiency in terms having enough and not using too much.

For example, in commercial buildings, the rise of air conditioning in warmer European countries (and globally) could hugely increase energy use. An energy services focus could mean meeting comfort needs in different ways: accepting more flexible ideas of comfort, buildings designed not to overheat, non-mechanical cooling methods, and different social and working arrangements. This contrasts with simply more efficient air conditioning, which can only slow the growth of energy for cooling, but not stabilise or reduce it.

Needs and wants

‘People’s basic needs’ are a key feature of the sufficiency definition – and the inner ring of the doughnut. This suggests that needs are a distinct category from wants. There are long-standing debates as to whether this distinction exists, and if so, how it can be defined. Some of these debates emerge from philosophical / political / social science traditions, with others arising from the requirements of public policy (e.g. what should social security payments cover?). Economists, in particular, tend to resist a distinction.

A theory of need developed originally by Len Doyal and Ian Gough, and updated by Ian Gough in his more recent book Heat, Greed and Human Need, has guided our thinking on this complex issue. They argue that there are fundamental material and non-material needs that must be met for all human beings so that they can lead a worthwhile life (in their own terms), but that the means of meeting these needs will vary between places and over time.

Indeed, despite arguments against the existence of objective human needs, everyday language suggests that people instinctively feel that they do exist and can be identified. Empirical research on a ‘Minimum Income Standard’, has investigated needs within contemporary British society, by asking people to make a collective judgement about what to include. The minimum is defined as follows:

A minimum standard of living in the UK today includes, but is more than just, food, clothes and shelter. It is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.

This Minimum Income Standard (MIS) is calculated by specifying ‘baskets’ of goods and services required by different types of household. The definition of needs has been generally stable across the ten years for which this periodic research has been running. The MIS is important in showing that it is possible, through careful participatory research, to reach social consensus on what minimum needs are in a given time and place. Such discussions could themselves be seen as part of a process of creating and maintaining a sufficiency-based society.

Limits to consumption

For energy policy, adopting sufficiency as a guiding principle would entail significant change. Policy on, for example, residential energy demand does not use the language of needs and wants, it focuses largely on energy efficiency and adoption of lower carbon or renewable energy sources.

Increasing energy efficiency has been very effective – between 2004 and 2017 gas consumption in UK homes has fallen by 25% and electricity by 15%, despite growing population and household numbers, as well as warmer homes (more energy service). But this approach cannot meet even our current 80% carbon reduction by 2050 target, particularly in more difficult sectors like transport. Moving to a sufficiency basis for policy means considering limits to consumption – which are much harder to agree than limits to (in)efficiency, which involve judgements about technologies and cost, rather than how much is enough.

Making a distinction between needs and wants entails moving from abstract concepts to particular descriptions and numbers, and applying these to individuals and organisations. Translating Figure 1’s ‘shelter’ and ‘mobility’ needs, to space per person and energy service standards in housing is likely to be challenging. The boundary between needs and wants could be set in terms of a current socially acceptable minimum (the Minimum Income Standard approach). Another starting point would be to distinguish ‘luxury’ or particularly high personal consumption. For example – should all air travel be considered a luxury, or flights above a certain number a year, or just first-class air travel? The question of how services are distributed between people and organisations within the ‘sufficiency space’ of the doughnut – what equity is taken to mean – is even more difficult. Such a basis for policy would very different from the perceived neutrality of efficiency policy.

This work on sufficiency is still in its early stages. However, we believe it usefully opens up the conversation about ensuring enough energy services for all, and what those might be, while responding to the calls from scientific, civil society and political leaders for rapid change to protect the natural environment on which we all depend. It calls for judgements on specific issues of ‘enoughness’ and challenges the idea of ‘sustainable growth’ and mainstream economic thinking. It means facing up to the need for substantially different ways of life, which will still have to emerge from existing materials, institutions, ideas and processes. We see it as an important concept to feed into policy at a time when so much is at stake for climate, biosphere and human welfare.


Further reading

Gough, I., (2017) Heat, greed and human need. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK.

Padley, M. and D. Hirsch (2017) A minimum income standard for the UK in 2017. York, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Raworth, K. (2017) Doughnut economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st-Century economist. London, Random House Business Books


About the author

Dr Tina Fawcett is a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford and Co-Director of the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. Her research focuses on energy demand and demand-side policy for households and organisations.

The research this article draws on was funded by ECEEE, the KR Foundation and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council via the UK Energy Research Centre, grant EP/L024756/1.