22 December 2016

Professor Gordon Walker, co-director of the Demand Centre, argues that de-carbonising the energy system is vital, but it is not enough on its own to realise a just energy transition. De-energising has an equally important part to play. 


There has long been a compelling case for reducing global carbon emissions at scale and at speed, implying profound and rapid changes to both the consumption and production of energy. What has been less focused on is the importance of also reducing the amount of energy (clean or otherwise) we consume.

So why isn’t de-carbonising enough on its own? There are (at least) four reasons.

First, the slow speed at which de-carbonising the energy supply has progressed to-date and is likely to progress in the future.  A supply system with much less energy demand to satisfy can only be quicker to de-carbonise.

Second, the cost implications and burdens of de-carbonisationare both substantial and potentially have justice consequences for those already struggling to afford the energy needed to sustain their well-being. 

Third, the need to focus much of the current investment in low carbon technologies in the Global South, addressing the ‘right to energy’ for much of the global population. 

Fourth, the problematic impacts of low carbon technologies - most obvious with nuclear power, but also an issue with other technologies when we look across their whole environmental and social footprint. Not using, or using cautiously, some low carbon technologies puts more pressure on all the points above.


The work that energy really needs to do

If de-carbonising supply is insufficient on its own, how can de-energising be taken forward? A key principle is to use technologically produced energy only for the work that it really needs to do. This principle has a number of implications for how we should approach demand reduction:

Concentrating directly on the notion of ‘need’ and how energy use contributes to the basics of human flourishing. If energy use is to be substantially cut back we need to establish a ‘baseline’ for energy use. Our research, published in two recent papers, has approached this question through the theoretical reasoning provided by the ‘capabilities approach’ and by analysing public deliberation about what forms of energy use are seen to really matter to a minimally decent living standard. This evidence shows both that what is considered ‘normal’ energy use is always on the move and that, for many people in the UK, their profile of everyday energy use is much higher than the minimum.

Rationalising energy use in relation to natural energy flows of heat and light in particular. Making more use of natural energy and only using technologically produced energy where it is really needed’.

  • Making energy use more ‘efficient’. Getting technologies to do their ‘work’ with less energy consumption is patently sensible and is the knee jerk way of thinking about demand reduction. Some substantial improvements have been achieved, but not enough, and energy efficiency strategies are constantly undermined by the simplicity of their underlying assumptions and, crucially, the fact that ongoing social change is continually producing counteracting shifts - such as bigger fridges or larger houses becoming the norm.

Making de-energisation a priority

Turning this approach into an active and fully engaged policy environment is not at all straightforward. But arguing now for de-energising and setting out its possibilities is both a way of potentially avoiding damaging system crises in the future, and being prepared for intervention once energy and climate politics do shift.

There are three key high level targets which need working on.

1)  Re-framing the way energy demand is discussed publicly.  Growing energy demand is frequently used as a positive sign of strength and progress. We undertook analysis of how the media connected energy to languages of need and necessity. We found a recurrent logic that the energy demanded now and in the future is what is needed; and what is needed has to be supplied. This means there is little space for demand reduction to be seen in a positive political light.  That space needs to be made, contested and filled out in new terms.

2) Making demand reduction the top of the energy hierarchy. There have been a number of attempts to bring the notion of a policy hierarchy into the energy world, mimicking that of the waste hierarchy. The idea is that the hierarchy guides or specifies what action should be looked to first, before the next step in the hierarchy is enacted and so on. For energy a properly constituted hierarchy starting with ‘avoiding energy use’ at the top, followed by ‘minimising energy use’, and only then ‘maximising energy efficiency’, ‘using renewable low carbon energy’, ‘shifting energy use out of peak periods’ and other steps, could embed de-energisation into policy far more centrally.

3) Bringing energy demand reduction into non-energy policy. A key limitation of the energy hierarchy is that it is positioned in an energy policy world. Just as preventing waste includes needing to intervene in all sorts of processes through which waste is generated, avoiding and minimising energy use rapidly extends to processes that are about the ongoing creation of energy demand across society. A major stream of work in the DEMAND Centre is focusing on the ‘invisible’ energy consequences of policies across multiple domains – such as health, education, defence, planning, welfare and employment. De-energising therefore means developing forms of intervention that can steer the dynamics of everyday life and multiple social, business and institutional phenomena in lower energy directions.

De-carbonising the energy system is vital, but it is not enough on its own to realise a just and fair energy transition. De-energising has just as important a part to play.

This blog was first published as a longer, think piece for the Friends of the Earth ‘Big Ideas’ series.




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