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Energy sufficiency in policy and practice: the question of needs and wants

21 June, 2019

Energy sufficiency in policy and practice: the question of needs and wants

Tina Fawcett

Research paper   Policy & Governance

Tina Fawcett and Sarah Darby


Transformation of energy demand is one of three pillars for action identified in the IPCC’s 1.5⁰C report. To deliver emissions reductions of the scale required, this transformation will need to be radical. While policy approaches of ‘energy efficiency first’ and ‘multiple benefits of energy efficiency’ have the potential to increase action and reduce carbon, a more ambitious framing is needed.

Sufficiency, or energy service sufficiency, could be a strong framework to deliver energy services equitably, while respecting planetary boundaries. But the concept of sufficiency cannot be separated from judgements on what is ‘enough’ or from principles of distributional justice: it steps outside conventional energy policy boundaries.

This paper explores the possibility of distinguishing between needs and wants – a debate with a long history – and considers whether and how such distinctions may be embodied in policies such as rising block and demand-based tariffs, energy labels based on consumption, product bans and building standards to reduce and prevent energy / fuel poverty. Ideas from the literature on distributive and procedural justice will be presented and interrogated in the light of European experience and debates on energy sufficiency and fuel poverty, and a model for reaching a national consensus on basic needs will be offered.

Energy policy based around access to sufficient services will involve questioning expectations and norms about what ‘enough’ means and who gets to decide. Moving to a sufficiency framing will involve challenging social and political debates, and technological advances will not allow us to side-step these. The energy policy community is a good place to start these discussions, because we already have some socio-technical options to offer, along with experience in defining services and standards, which can be developed on the path to much-reduced use of fossil fuel.

Publication details

Fawcett, T. and Darby, S. 2019. Energy sufficiency in policy and practice: the question of needs and wantsOpens in a new tab. In: Proceedings of eceee Summer Study, June 2019.  

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