We all have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions, and researchers say switching the focus from energy suppliers to energy consumers is a more effective approach with the added benefit of improving wellbeing.

In an article published today in the journal Joule, members of the Energy Demand changes Induced by Technological and Social innovations (EDITS) network say there needs to be greater research focus on how demand for energy and material resources can be reduced in ways that both improve people’s wellbeing and contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG).  

Their paper refers to a global ‘High-with-Low’ scenario that delivers high wellbeing with low energy and material resource consumption while limiting global warming in line with Paris Agreement targets.

The researchers say the ways we consume energy to fulfil human needs could lead to a more than 40% reduction in our total energy demand in 2050, and consequently make it easier to decarbonise energy supply.

Professor Charlie Wilson, one of the authors and the leader of the Energy research programme at ECI, said:

There are numerous ways for us to dramatically reduce the energy we consume while improving our standards of living, the quality of our cities, and our social wellbeing. Our analysis shows this should be the ‘first best’ strategy for tackling climate change.”  

Public support for changing the way energy is used has been growing in the last few years. Reducing energy demand saves money for households and businesses, of course, as well as reducing emissions. And importantly, it can have other benefits – improving air quality, improving our homes and public spaces and creating employment.    

The researchers say there needs to be societal and technological transformations that could form the basis for new lifestyles to create a modern, more just, net-zero world through innovations. Ensuring wellbeing and access to essential and social services is why society requires materials and energy.

The researchers say: “Placing individual level transformations at the centre of solutions to drastically reduce energy consumption globally does not mean shifting the responsibility of climate mitigation to people. On the contrary, it is about empowering people by providing access to the right infrastructure, technology, and incentives. Many new cities will be built in the developing world so there is a huge opportunity to foster inclusive growth by staying clear of unsustainable practices.”

At present the focus of policymakers is often on supply-side solutions – how to supply energy that is affordable, clean and secure. The EDITS network members argue that modification of demand for energy resources can and should play a complementary role in achieving this aim, especially given the risks brought by market volatility and geopolitics.  

So, what exactly are demand-side solutions? The authors define them as “policies, interventions, and measures which modify demand for goods and services to reduce material and energy requirements and associated GHG emissions, while also contributing to other policy objectives including improved wellbeing and living standards.” For example, measures might promote lifestyle changes and the adoption of certain behaviours, while also aiming to improve the efficiency of supply chains and infrastructure, thereby increasing people’s wellbeing.    

The potential benefits of demand-side solutions are huge. According to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), demand-side solutions could reduce GHG emissions from end-use sectors like buildings, transport, retail, and industry by 40–70% by 2050, with multi-faceted increases in wellbeing and no corresponding reduction in service levels. The authors call these “High-with-Low” (HwL) scenarios: high wellbeing and low energy demand. They also argue that reducing energy and material demand will increase economic resilience and make decarbonisation easier to achieve.   

The authors point out that some local, national and international bodies are already encouraging demand-side solutions. For example, the EU has passed legislation over the past few decades to drive energy efficiency. Local governments, such as those in Paris and Barcelona, are undertaking urban planning in support of 15-minute cities, which promote the idea that residents should be able to walk or cycle to all of the services they need within 15 minutes. In the US, the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits to incentivise the uptake of heat pumps and electric vehicles.

However, much of the current emphasis in scientific research and modelling is on supply-side solutions and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This includes bioenergy production with carbon capture and storage (CCS), which involves serious trade-offs and risks because it requires intensive land-use. The fear is that scaling it up could create major competition for land with food producers.  

In contrast, low energy and material demand (LEMD) scenarios are under-explored in research. The authors argue that there should be a much greater focus on modelling these scenarios to inform policy and innovation because they minimise the trade-offs we face in tackling climate change. This will require better data on demand, services, wellbeing, business model and technological innovation, with careful selection of indicators key to producing useful models. The EDITS network is working actively to address these data and modelling needs by bringing together researchers from many different fields as part of a collective effort from researchers, governments, funders, and other stakeholders to help us move towards High-with-Low futures.

Read the paper in full: High with low: Harnessing the power of demand-side solutions for high wellbeing with low energy and material demand