Energy demand reduction is not ‘nanny state’ governance. It’s sensible, strategic and consistent climate policy

05 July, 2022

Sam Betts-Davies

Reading time: 7 minutes

This blog presents some key arguments for a positive policy focus on energy demand reduction, and why it’s not quite as scary as some politicians might fear.

Our CREDS study, Positive Low Energy Futures, recently published in Nature Energy found that without substantial levels of energy demand reduction the UK will be unable to achieve net-zero by 2050. Similarly, the CCC has clearly stated that government is failing to meet their decarbonisation commitments.

The good news is that the UK has the potential to reduce demand by 52% to help reach net-zero, achieved through a combination of social changes to how we consume energy services and how much we consume, as well as energy efficiency measures that decrease the amount of energy needed to supply us with all-important goods and services.

In promoting this work, one common challenge to achieving this goal has been argued over and over again, most often from government and the media. That is: ‘reducing demand means you have to tell people what to do, tell people what to consume and when to consume it, restricting people’s choice and removing their liberties’. Demand reduction policy is the ‘nanny state’.

Such a view is also entrenched in government thinking on climate mitigation policy. Boris Johnson, in his foreword to the Net Zero Strategy released last year, is at pains to communicate that his climate plan is absent of ‘hair shirts’, does not tell people to stop driving cars or flying planes, such is the fear of an imagined political backlash stemming from a government telling you what to do. The result of this fear of the nanny state label is to neglect energy demand reduction, and the significant emissions reduction potential that couple with the capacity to make people’s lives better.

What’s worse is that this fear of the nanny state perception is misguided. Reducing energy demand does not require a paternalist state where individual’s choices and actions are restricted, nor a society that has regressed to Johnson’s imaginary hair-shirted environmentalist’s dystopia. This blog presents some key arguments for a positive policy focus on energy demand reduction, and why it’s not quite as scary as some politicians might fear.

1. Government policy already influences our consumption choices and energy consumption, often causing it to grow

One issue with this view is that it implies that at present, consumers are free to consume whatever they like by whatever means they prefer: that we have free consumer choice about whether we drive or cycle to work, heat our home using a boiler or a heat pump. However, this is simply not the case. Government is already telling us what and how much to consume, through its investment decisions, development and planning regulations, some of which have major implications on price and affordability of low-carbon solutions.

Investing £27.4bn in road infrastructure by 2025 tells us to keep buying and using cars as much as possible. It tells us that more lanes will be added to motorways and arterial roads to make room for them. And importantly, it tells us that genuine low-carbon alternatives to our present dependence on car travel are not coming any time soon, so go buy that new car. This investment compares to just £2bn made available for all active travel, spread across bike lanes, pavements and road crossings by the end of the same period. Such a discrepancy in investment places clear signals that making it more convenient to drive is a significantly higher priority government than the ease at which people can access safe zero-carbon active travel options. These political choices induce energy demand growth by promoting energy intensive mobility. Government is telling consumers to choose the travel option with higher energy demand.

Similarly, in housing regulations, the failure to require low carbon heating systems like heat pumps in new building developments lock in significantly higher levels of energy demand for the lifetime of the new boilers. Similarly, allowing housing development on the edge of towns without sufficient expansion of public transport or localisation of services requires people to own and drive a car to access basic services. In these ways government directly shapes the size and structure of future energy demand.

2. Government intervention to reduce energy demand does not need to be paternalistic, it just needs to be strategically consistent

To achieve the levels of energy demand reduction in the Positive Low Energy Futures scenarios, we need to foster changes to social practices as well as effective use of low carbon technologies and their associated energy efficiency changes. As seen by the rebounds in demand after the lifting of the coronavirus restrictions, lasting change is unlikely to be brought about by top-down rules and instructions.

A first port of call would be establishing an investment decision making process that enables consistent and coherent decisions to be made. This isn’t paternalism, it’s establishing investment priorities consistent with net-zero, and not contradicting them. Ensuring each public investment decision can pass the test: does this policy lock in increases in future energy demand? Does this policy make achieving energy and emissions reductions more difficult? And if it does, the investment is unlikely to be consistent with achieving net-zero.

Reducing investment in areas that lock in growth in energy demand, will stop this inefficient use of public funds, facilitating further investment in low-energy solutions. But importantly, such policies are hardly paternal, they are simply just good practice rules for strategic policy making. The diversion of investments away from things that lock in energy demand growth, towards those that support energy demand reduction is just consistent governance.

3. Energy demand reduction is not just behaviour change, it’s so much more

A common narrative in government and academia is that there are two sides to energy demand reduction strategies: energy efficiency and changing behaviours. As academics, we desperately need to move beyond this ‘behaviour change’ framing. It’s negative, unfairly blames individuals’ logical consumption behaviour given the social, political and economic structures that surround them, and it leads to ineffective policy design. Such misplaced focus on behaviour change feeds in to this misconception of energy demand reduction policies as paternalistic. The logic goes that to change behaviour, you have to tell people what to do. It’s no surprise that government is politically scared by this framing.

Whilst changing behaviours to maximise the efficient use of energy services play a small role in our Positive Low Energy Futures scenarios, such as reducing internal temperatures or shifting dietary choices, our energy demand strategies are much broader than this. A comprehensive energy demand reduction strategy would seek to create social change towards sustainable societies not through nudging individuals’ behaviours; but through infrastructure investment decisions, through urban planning that encourages car-free urban living, through government procurement of heat pumps in public housing helping to help upscale supply chains whilst reducing prices, and subsidies for private investment in low-carbon technologies. None of the above is behaviour change, but all of it supports social change and energy demand reduction.

Moving beyond the framing of energy demand reduction as policies of a paternalistic ’nanny state’ is essential to advancing this agenda, and to successful policy design to reduce energy consumption. Any hopes of net-zero depend on it.

For more information on the Positive Low Energy Futures Study, please see our open access Nature Energy article or refer to the project dedicated website.

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