As CREDS draws to an end, programme director Nick Eyre reflects on what we have achieved.
CREDS ends on 31 December, so it seems a good moment at which to reflect on the last six years.
What have we done?
As you would expect from a large research centre, we have written a lot and talked to a lot of people. At the last count we have nearly 500 publications, of which about 300 are peer reviewed articles. And, despite the disruption of the pandemic, we have undertaken more than 1,200 engagement activities.
Summarising such a diverse body of work is obviously difficult, but, through a team effort, we have tried to do just that. Each of CREDS nine themes has developed a summary, and our overall findings are in 15 one-page topic summaries, each of which provides links to our underlying evidence base.
What are the insights?
The CREDS consortium has a wide range of perspectives. For a collection of academics this is inevitable, and healthy. But there are some insights that are commonly shared.
The first is that energy demand matters. Use of energy is fundamental to a modern society, but it is currently the main driving force of greenhouse gas emissions. It therefore has to change a lot. Our analysis shows it has to be reduced, made more flexible and switched to decarbonised fuels.
Our work reasserts the importance of energy efficiency improvements and identifies the huge boost to its potential offered by electrification, in particular through electric vehicles and heat pumps.
But we have also found that some of the broader benefits of demand reduction (e.g. for health, energy security and green employment) also require more fundamental change in the systems that drive energy use, in particular greater use of public transport, more active travel and shifts to a circular economy.
With a combination of these strategies, energy demand can change a lot. In recent decades, improvements in energy efficiency have contributed more to carbon emissions reductions all supply side changes combined. Going forward, we have shown that UK energy demand can be halved by 2050.
We consistently found that fairness matters: not just because it is normatively important, but also because perceptions of fairness or otherwise affect public support for change.
All this means that energy demand is central to the shift to sustainable energy. Conceptualising changing energy demand purely in terms of ‘individual responsibility’, ‘greener choices’ or ‘behaviour change’ misses the point. Just like changing energy supply, changing demand requires changes in infrastructure, technology and business models. I suspect that for many people, this will be CREDS’ most surprising insight. It certainly also means that existing institutions and policies will not be adequate.
Who have we persuaded?
It’s easiest to start with who we haven’t persuaded. The last three occupants of 10 Downing Street have shown no signs of accepting these insights. That’s probably more to do with ideological preconceptions than the evidence, but it’s still an uncomfortable truth on which we need to reflect.
But that doesn’t mean CREDS, and others presenting similar insights, have failed. All significant change takes time and effort. Particularly in democracies, a ‘long march through the institutions’ is needed. And there are positive signs that these insights are beginning to have traction.
Internationally, the last IPCC assessment places much greater emphasis on changing demand and broadly supports our analysis of the scale of the potential. The IEA now refers to energy efficiency as ‘the first fuel’ and the European Commission actively promotes ‘Energy Efficiency First’.
In the UK, some similar shifts can be seen in reports from the Climate Change Committee, the National Infrastructure Commission and the Government Office of Science. And there are positive signs in the Scottish and Welsh governments and many local authorities, as well as forward-thinking businesses and civil society organisations. Whilst we can’t realistically claim this is entirely due to CREDS, I have no doubt we have contributed.
For research funders we have a clear message that inter-disciplinary approaches are still needed. They can be hard work, but the challenges of changing demand require multiple perspectives. As importantly, ‘changing energy demand’ is not a single topic; the challenges are diverse and require in-depth knowledge of specific sectors, technologies and energy services. Expertise matters and should be supported.
For researchers, CREDS’ outputs will be available for at least the next five years on this website. We believe that many will continue to be useful. Indeed, some may gain in impact as the challenges of decarbonisation are addressed.
For wider stakeholders, we have designed the presentation of our research findings to be digestible and useful. However, I suspect that the biggest long term-benefit of CREDS will be from the skills and commitment of the people we have brought together. In particular, many early career researchers have made big contributions to our work. They are part of the generation that has to map the pathways through to complete decarbonisation. I have confidence that they will.
Professor Nick Eyre, December 2023
Director of the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions
Banner photo credit: Dmitry Grigoriev on Unsplash