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Exploring excess – the other end of the sufficiency debate

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High energy consumers

06 June, 2019

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On Tuesday 4 June 2019 at the eceee Summer Study, Tim Chatterton and Jillian Anable held an informal workshop for the High Energy Consumers project. 

On Tuesday 4 June 2019 at the eceee Summer Study, Tim Chatterton and Jillian Anable held an informal workshop for the High Energy Consumers project.  The session developed the ideas in Tim’s presentation about the need to specifically research high energy consumption behaviours/ activities/ practices in order to help develop policies that can reduce energy consumption furthest and fastest.

‘High-End’ or ‘extreme’ consumption often proves to be a sensitive topic, particularly with regard to policymakers.  Whilst often alluded to in work on sufficiency, the general framing of the debate around the borderline between wants and needs tends to focus debate on comparatively low level consumption.  The aim of the project is to complement this through a ‘top-down’ approach starting with what might be more clearly unacceptable in a constrained energy system. The aim of the workshop was to help break down some of the apparent taboos around the topic by trying to bring it into the light and create frameworks which make it easier to discuss.

The session was well attended, with more than 50 people coming to participate enthusiastically. This shows that, despite little research being done in this area, there is a strong interest in the topic. Here we will briefly summarise the activities and some of the key issues that arose:

Not all excess is the same

The session centred on the validation and development of a framework for categorising different types of high-end energy consumption. Participants provided more than 150 suggestions for ‘excessive activities’ and categorised these under nine categories, before reviewing them with sticky dots. The group then selected some examples from each category for discussion, before finally moving on to discuss the possible policy implications arising from the activity.

Examples chosen for discussion by the group included festive lighting, buying the latest smart phone just because it is available, going on a skiing holiday, flying to a conference ‘simply to get inspiration’, buying new clothes regularly, energy consumption from streaming, driving children to activities rather than encouraging/teaching them to cycle.

Some policy issues raised

  • Are Personal Carbon Allowances or Tradeable Energy Quotas suitable instruments for controlling excessive consumption?  Or do they potentially lead to unfair inequalities? What might be alternative measures?
  • How do the different categories affect how we might choose to deal with different activities?
  • It is hard to generalise across different activities and any activity might have a range of different possible contexts.
  • Do people really have a free choice about how they use energy, or is this significantly constrained through structural and social circumstances or earlier choices that lock-in consumption patterns?

Careful language is essential for this to be a constructive debate – there is a risk that in judging activities you can be seen as judging people.  However, it is also necessary to have the space to have provocative discussions in order to begin to shift the Overton window and redefine what is within the bounds of acceptable discourse.

Getting the output

Thank you so much to all the participants! In order to get a copy of the categorised activities and/or be kept in the loop regarding future related activities, please email CREDSadmin@ouce.ox.ac.uk.


Banner photo credit: Jussara Romão on Unsplash