Excess energy consumption – is it reasonable to put a limit on how much energy we use?

09 February, 2022

Noel Cass

Reading time: 8 minutes

In this blog, Noel Cass summarises our new report, launched today- Curbing excess: high energy consumption and the fair energy transition. The two-year research project looked at how excess consumption of energy could be curbed, in a fair way.

Today, CREDS researchers from Leeds and Manchester Universities are publishing a report from our research on ‘excess energy consumption’. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the research – its central question is the title of this blog – and its findings.

Unusually for a research project, the Excess project has had to address normative (i.e. moral, ethical, political) issues from the outset, and negotiating a path through research with an intrinsically political edge has been educational.

How do we define excess?

Our report begins by exploring different definitions for ‘excess energy consumption’, in order to frame the research and its findings. In fact, this exploration of definitions arose from doing the research itself. The very concept of excess proved to be as slippery as it is apparently taken-for-granted.

Without any context being given, an argument can be made that excess should be the first target, if trimming is required; that is the abstract meaning of excess. Whether cutting cloth to a pattern or removing the pie lid that drapes over the edge of its dish, the concept of excess suggests that some amount of ‘stuff’ is surplus to requirements as it goes over a line, and it can be removed without damage to the utility of what remains. All that is required, then, is to identify the edge of the pie dish, the dotted line of the clothing pattern panel, or the limit of necessary energy consumption, and to draw a line in the sand: up to here and no further. In our report we lay out potential definitions of excess that emerged from the initial quantitative and spatial analyses of aggregated energy consumption, and from the design and conduct of the later qualitative and deliberative research. These definitions were not even necessarily conscious and explicit when we used them.

What energy consumption is necessary?

Straightaway a second question arises, of what energy consumption is necessary. Different people, in different places and different sections of society, use considerably different amounts of energy in their pursuit of their daily lives. Drawing a line through all the complexity of energy consumption across society, which encompasses what all of these people need, but thereby excludes what is excessive, is as tricky as mapping the coastline.

Through analysis of a number of different datasets, we identified how car mileages and annual flights are unequally distributed geographically and socially but saw no obvious place to draw a line demarcating excess. Dividing a spectrum will always be to some extent arbitrary. However we could model the results of setting particular levels of consumption as a cut-off point, meaning that a definition of ‘excess’ was the ‘result’ not the input of the analysis. Specifically applied to car mileages, the analogy is that we wanted to maximise the amount of pie lid or cloth that could be cut.

However, these analyses came up with aggregated averages and couldn’t hope to determine energy consumption that more directly satisfies basic needs from that which might better be seen as discretionary, superfluous, or excessive. Making such distinctions would require first understanding exactly how and why the highest levels of energy consumption arise. This was the purpose of our interview study of high energy consumers.

How and why does high energy consumption arise?

Seeking honesty and a richness and depth of qualitative data from our 30 interviewees, we carefully made sure that they knew that they had been selected for their high levels of energy consumption, but also that the research was non-judgemental. We wanted their own accounts of how their energy consumption arose, and where possible, what they felt generated it. We knew that they were unlikely to describe their own consumption as excessive or ‘excess’, in the sense of surplus to requirements. In fact, a couple of interviewees did use humour to talk about the shocking size of their ‘footprints’, particularly with reference to their car use and frequent flying. The concept of carbon footprints has been identified as an invention of the fossil fuel industry, promoted strategically to encourage individuals to feel responsibility for consumption that they (the industry) structurally facilitate. It seemed to have succeeded in that it was deployed in these attempts to laugh off personal guilt.

But in almost every other context where our interviewees described their homes, their infrastructures and appliances of heating, cooking or cleaning, and the regular, occasional and exceptional travel involved in their lives, their accounts described everything as normal, necessary, obvious, and taken for granted. They assumed that their accounts, and their energy consumption, would be seen by others as reasonable, as they consist of using available infrastructures and devices, and pursuing the norms and expectations of living a ‘good life’; what could possibly be objectionable about pursuing what everyone deserves and aspires to?

So, how might the line be drawn?

This finding might be thought to be a failure in an attempt to account for ‘excess’. If everything our interviewees did was (seen as) normal, how might the line be drawn? How could anyone, academic or policy-maker, justify second-guessing what in people’s lifestyles was needed and what was excess to their requirements? We discuss this in the first section of our report. There are different ways of qualitatively defining excess energy consumption, all of which rely to some extent on defining how needs or wants are satisfied in different ways, and how these might be assessed as being reasonable or justifiable.

In many areas, interviewees felt that it was taken for granted that they would have several freezers, a TV in every room, multiple foreign holidays a year, and that they would use a car for 5 minute journeys several times a day, or drive across the country several times a week for work, and then again at the weekend for a break. These activities and devices are available, and used to satisfy some basic human needs – earning a living, shelter, conviviality, sociality, engagement in society.

However, are these specific ways of satisfying ‘human needs’ justifiable? They do so in ways that are far more energy consuming than the ways in which previous generations in the same places and occupations satisfied the same needs. Previous attempts to define what is required for full engagement in society (often used as the definition of ‘basic need’), such as Minimum Income Standards, have been consensual and contextual, and have demonstrated that such ‘needs’ have constantly ratcheted upwards. They can be seen as too subjective, again raising the issue of not allowing second-guessing from ‘outside’.

What policy approaches would be fair?

Our Deliberative Workshops were therefore an attempt to grasp another grounded definition of what ‘excess’ energy consumption is – consumption that is ‘unreasonable’, in the context of the climate emergency and the Paris and Net Zero policy commitments. By discussing the fairness, effectiveness and acceptability of different approaches to reduce particularly high energy consumption, with members of the public with a variety of different levels of lifestyle consumption, we hoped to see how citizens themselves would identify what energy consumption it is fair and reasonable to target, and in which ways.

Policy, they felt, should focus on tackling consumption that was seen as wasteful, discretionary, luxury-based, frivolous or unnecessary, all of which might be seen as synonyms for ‘excess’ and ‘excessive’. Frequent flying, for multiple foreign and exotic holidays and ‘frivolous’ reasons, as well as for business travel, was identified numerous times as a fair and reasonable target, as was ‘needless’ car use. Targeting car use in particular was seen as problematic unless there were plausible alternatives, requiring serious levels of government investment in public transport, more so than, but including, active travel. There was also surprising (personal) support for electric bicycles!

In other words, to answer the question posed in the title of this blog: demanding individuals curb their ‘personal’ excessive behaviour was seen as unreasonable itself, when the choice environment is so heavily structured that it forces people into unsustainable lifestyles. It might be said that the ‘unreasonableness’ of energy consumption more often lies with the systems and infrastructures of everyday life, than with the individuals ‘choosing’ to use them. The government’s responsibility, then, was seen as first making the ‘excess’ consumption unreasonable, by rendering it as explicit choices, through making other alternatives unavoidable, cheap or feasible. Then, unsustainable choices might be more clearly revealed and targeted by more coercive policy measures.

Full report

Project outputs

Banner photo credit: 22 Images Studio on Adobe Stock