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December 2010

In recent years some focus in EU and national policies has been on improving energy efficiency, but less on energy conservation. Discussions of how much energy we need to consume has not made their way into practical policies.

The energy efficiency focus have strengthened the attention on the many possibilities to fulfil the same energy services with less energy inputs: heating of houses with less heat use, equipment with very little stand-by consumption, cars with much longer mileage, etc. However it has also lead to perverse effects, such as consumer information leading to more purchases of large washing machines that are very efficient when used with full load, but uses more energy than smaller machines, if only filled up with a small load, as most families do in daily life. This has has happened with the EU labelling for washing machines that is now being revised.

Fundamentally the lack of focus on limits to energy use tend to hide the sustainability limits to consumption of energy and resources on our finite planet. It can also hide possible strategies and policies to increase present and future well being without increasing energy services.

Given the lack of focus on energy sufficiency and on energy conservation, the opportunities to address energy sufficiency with policy measures have not been explored much in recent years. There are good reasons to address this in national policies as well as in EU policies.

Possible Drivers for Energy Sufficiency / Less Energy Services.
In some cultures and subcultures sufficiency is seen as morally favourable. While this moral aspects have been on the decline in recent years in the main-stream European cultures, it re-emerges in new movements, such as the "living lightly" movement. Also the "Buy Nothing Day" ( is an example of this.

A different, more important issue is the difference between on the one hand economists and business and on the other hand a large part of the population. The mainstream economic theories deal with economic growth as an important target for economic policies, seeing it as a necessity to avoid large unemployment, and ultimately for a stable society with happy citizens. Business is similarly based on economic growth as a necessity for prosperity and even for survival. As each company has an objective of growth, overall economic growth makes it easier for companies to realise their individual growth objectives and they will therefore favour overall economic growth. On the other hand, a large part of the population is more interested in status quo, where developments are not of a material nature and where stability and security is in focus instead of growth. Further, a part of the population is in favour of a slower, less stressful life, for instance with more free time instead of wage increases when productivity goes up. The recent French "Decroissance" movement builds primarily on these ideas, while they also use the moral arguments.

Even the economic growth does no have to be linked with material growth. In the capitalistic system economic growth does not necessarily have to be linked to material growth. Material streams can stay the same or even reduce while their value increases because of higher quality, miniturisation of functions, or special features. Organic food, portable electronic devices such as smart mobile phones, and design/arts are recent successful examples of this. There are different opinions of how far this can decouple economic growth from streams of materials and energy service levels. While individual products increase in value per kg, the increased wealth will increase the consumers' abilities to do more resource-consuming purchases, such as longer air travel. Also the advanced products sometimes require more advanced materials that are more resource-intensive to supply than more traditional products, even if they have lower weight or size.
In any way there are substantial potentials for economic growth without or with much less material growth.

Sufficiency in Energy Scenarios
Energy sufficiency have been included in several proposed energy scenarios of NGOs, most prominently in the French Negawatt scenario, but also in the INFORSE visions/scenarios and in ZeroCarbonBritain. The INFORSE scenarios have less growth in energy services for Western Europe than traditional forecasts, and reductions in transport based on analysis of the transport needs with a more optimal structure of cities, etc.

Policies and Strategies for Energy Sufficiency
Policies and strategies to address energy sufficiency are sometimes but not always different for policies and strategies for energy efficiency. They can be based on the three objectives mentioned above:

  • The moral aspects of reducing environmental impacts on our limited earth.
  • The desire of stability and stress-reduction. In product policy this will translate into using less resources on products during their life-time. Then the resources can be used for more free time, to ease burden of current and future family budgets, but of course also for buying other goods and services. The focus here should be on life-cycle considerations in purchases, so the consumer buys products that are affordable to use, also in the event of energy price crisis. Energy efficient cars and houses are good examples of products where limited consumption is an insurance against economic problems in the case of energy price crisis.
  • Quality and miniturisation of products and functions.

Examples of consumer actions to increase energy sufficiency, and policies to promote this

Consumer action

Efficiency/ sufficiency

Promoting policies

Buy household goods that are sized to average loads.


Labelling that signals energy use not energy efficiency

Higher energy efficiency requirements for large products

Consumer information on the need of products.

Taxation of products according to energy consumption above a baseline

Buy smaller, more energy efficient/better located house


Consumer information

Higher tax on inefficient housing, and on energy

No tax incentive for commuting

Buy small car


Consumer information

Taxation of car according to weight

Petrol tax (small cars use less fuel)

Benefits of small cars in parking etc

Buy energy efficient/electric car


Consumer information


Taxation of cars according to mileage

Petrol tax

Benefits of electric cars in parking etc.

Use public transport/bike


Make public transport more convenient and flexible

Make bicycle use more convenient and safer

Increase car costs relatively

Commute less


Promote moving closer to work

No tax incentive for commuting

Increase transport costs

Travel less, shorter holiday trips


Promote national/regional holiday destinations

Taxes/env. costs on transport

Buy products that lasts longer


Taxation of products

Long guarantees

Consumer information

Taxes/requirements for repair-ability, upgrade-ability

Buy less (on credit)


Regulate credit markets to reduce consumer credits

Possible EU Energy Policies to Promote Sufficiency
Sufficiency can be included in a number of EU policies, from overall economic policies to specific energy efficiency measures. In the energy efficiency policies under preparation, sufficiency can be included in the revised energy efficiency action plan (maybe renaming to an energy conservation action plan), and in EU product policies, such as Ecodesign and labelling directives, public procurement guidelines.

In the coming revision of the Energy Efficiency/Conservation Action Plan, this would include:

  • The energy efficiency targets are supplemented with energy consumption targets. It would not be constructive to give up the current 20% energy efficiency target, but it should be supplemented with national energy consumption targets. These targets must be based on targets for decoupling the still expected economic growth from energy service demand, acknowledging that size of transport, houses etc. does not have to grow with the expected economic growth. Otherwise the targets will be inflated and thus useless.
  • That energy efficiency information is replaced with energy conservation information, taking its basis in the real needs and desires of consumers, in addition to current information on how the most energy efficiency can fulfill their energy service demands
  • That product policies are changed from promoting energy efficiency mostly in the use phase to promoting energy conservation in a life-cycle perspective
  • Higher taxation on energy, including energy used for aviation and holidays
  • Review of taxation including tax breaks, to make the tax systems promote energy conservation
  • Promotion of policies for reducing transport by better location of functions
  • That all these policies are included in the coming National Energy Efficiency (or maybe Conservation) Action Plans, made for the Energy Efficiency Directive

All these proposal are of course additional to the necessary increased actions for energy efficiency in the coming energy efficiency/conservation action plan.

Go to energy efficiency policies

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