The urgent need to reduce our energy demand

27 June, 2022

John Barrett

Reading time: 6 minutes

In this blog, John Barrett talks about our paper, published in Nature Energy today, which calculates how a developed country, the UK, can rapidly reduce its energy demand without compromising the quality of life of its citizens.

Despite numerous international climate summits, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to rise. Since the first report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990 that warned of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, global GHG emissions have risen by over 60%. Six IPCC reports later and there is still no sign of the reduction in GHG emissions required to avoid the internationally agreed target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial times.

While there has been a rapid rise in the deployment of renewable energy, it is not replacing fossil fuels. The key reason for this is that the rise in energy demand outpaces the increase in the growth of renewable energy.

The energy system needs to completely decarbonise while expanding the electricity system to provide mobility, heat and new industrial processes. This challenge is enormous. It relies strongly on high levels of societal acceptance of new technologies and presumes that the very real technical hurdles of building out a new energy infrastructure in a relatively short period of time can be overcome. With rising energy demand, it is impossible for the energy system to adapt at the required speed.

Reducing energy demand in the short and medium term alongside the transformation of the energy system is the only viable pathway to achieve ambitious global climate targets. This was clearly shown in the latest IPCC report at the global level. This is useful to provide a global vision of how to reduce energy demand. However, the strategies and policies to reduce energy demand will need to be introduced at the national level.

A framework for developed countries

Our paper in Nature Energy has calculated how a developed country, the United Kingdom, can rapidly reduce its energy demand without compromising the quality of life of citizens. We modelled how every activity could be delivered differently with the aim of reducing energy demand as much as possible. This involves key social transformations in how we travel, the food we eat, the products we use and how we keep our homes warm, combined with the rapid uptake of new efficient technologies. Collectively, improvements in efficiency combined with essential social transformations, can halve the UK’s energy demand. This would reduce the UK’s energy demand below the current global average on a per capita basis.

The four scenarios

We developed four scenarios to explore the role of reducing energy demand in achieving the UK’s net-zero target. This was done by using a number of bottom-up sector models to explore the possibilities for change in every sector. These changes in energy demand are developed in step with a corresponding supply side system and its necessary deployment of low carbon technologies. This approach provides simultaneous and consistent whole economy and sector level perspectives. It captures the detail required at the sector level, and reflects the diverse strategies that are applied across different sectors. The whole system perspective is also crucial, to capture the linkages and trade-offs between sectors, helping ensure consistency based on the chosen scenario narrative. Our first scenario, Ignore considers what the UK’s energy demand could be with current strategies and policies in place and no further attention given to reducing energy demand. This scenario results in a 5% reduction in energy demand and fails to achieve the UK’s climate ambitions by a sizeable margin.

Our second scenario, Steer maintains current levels of energy services while trying to deliver these as efficiently as possible. This involves the introduction of important technologies like electric vehicles and heat pumps and results in a 31% reduction, but fails to deliver the UK’s goal of reaching net-zero by 2050, falling short by 28 million tonnes. Our third scenario, Shift represents a 41% reduction in energy demand and adds broader changes beyond energy efficiency to reduce demand. These include shifting social patterns and avoiding energy demand where possible. We go beyond energy efficiency options and consider energy demand reduction in terms of solutions that avoid, shift and improve the use of energy. This recognises the need for a stronger focus on the socio-technical dimension of transitions. The Shift scenario does reach the UK’s net-zero target but still requires a complete transformation of the energy system and engineered carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies to deal with residual emissions.

Our final scenario, Transform delivers numerous benefits such as health, improved local environments, improved work practices, reduced investment needs and lower cumulative emissions. We show that a developed country like the UK can reduce energy demand well beyond today’s global average on a per capita basis while maintaining a high quality of life. With a 52% reduction in energy demand, the Transform scenario forgoes the need to rely on unproven technologies at scale, such as a number of engineered CDR technologies. It also reduces the size of the energy system, moderating the necessary investment requirements for supplying energy. It provides a framing on how energy demand reduction can both meet net-zero ambitions while improving the quality of life of vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.

Time for Governments to take energy demand reduction seriously

Our scenarios have provided valuable information that fill an important gap in our knowledge for achieving net-zero. Energy demand strategies and targets remain unexplored and are side lined from Government thinking. There is often the perception that it will be unpopular to pursue a transformative approach to reducing energy demand. However, our Transform scenario offers evidence that improving quality of life combined and reducing GHG emissions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we simply won’t achieve our net-zero target without reductions in energy demand of around 40% by 2050, and will only realise many of the quality of life benefits by reducing energy demand even further.

Finally, it is important to recognise that the reductions in energy demand are derived from energy efficiency improvements which predominately relate to the roll out of new technologies AND broader social changes that avoid or radically shift the energy service demands. It is clearly not one or the other. Both technological and broader societal changes are required to halve the UK’s energy demand.

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