The Sufficiency Test

Noam Bergman reports back from eceee 2019 Summer Study on energy efficiency

The eceee 2019 Summer Study had the title Is Efficient Sufficient? This, in itself, was exciting. In previous years, this biannual conference of the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy focused on energy efficiency, from the technical to the systemic to the behavioural. This theme, however, indicated a change, finally putting centre stage the question many of us have been asking for years: whether energy efficiency is in itself enough to substantially reduce our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

The word sufficient points towards the sufficiency research that has cropped up in the past few years, including eceee’s own sufficiency work, the ‘Enough’ network, and the French Négawatt thinktank (who have been peddling the notion of sobriété for nearly twenty years, a similar concept to sufficiency, although an exact translation is difficult). Sufficiency highlights meeting people’s basic needs while respecting ecological boundaries, alongside equity in how resources are distributed (see this introduction paper by Tina Fawcett & Sarah Darby). Unlike the efficiency literature, sufficiency questions the ‘sustainable growth’ narrative. There is an attempt to distinguish sufficiency from degrowth, although I believe the two are very similar.

As Yves Marignac explained in his conference talk, objections to sufficiency (or sobriété) are often either ideological, like asserting that our ‘way of life’ is not negotiable, or emotional, like reacting strongly to the idea that some behaviours, such as air travel, could be limited. There are also more material objections that point to the perceived abstractness and lack of consistent narratives around sufficiency.

Extinction Rebellion protest in London, November 2018 (credits: Image by David Hold shared under CC BY 2.0 license)

Various talks and informal discussions touched on the need for disruption to our everyday lives in order to achieve bigger changes, either through new innovative technologies or through policy and other interventions. The Extinction Rebellion movement was mentioned more than once. The mood that something out there was changing, raising the question of  how we, as energy researchers and practitioners, should respond or participate. This was perhaps best captured in the discussion on ‘Saving Energy in a Hurry’, co-chaired by Bill Bordass and Alan Meier’s entertaining double act. Would the current public mood open a window for us to push the policies and recommendations we’ve been working on for years? Would it be better for us to continue what we do best – research, and perhaps replace our customary ‘more research needed’ with ‘more action needed’? Or would we be better off joining the school strike for climate? Could we do both?

The sufficiency narrative poses tough questions, such as how we separate needs from wants in building a fair and sustainable future. One well-attended conference workshop, led by Tim Chatterton and Jillian Anable, shone a light on high end energy users, part of their work on Exploring Excess. We talk so much about how the average user can save, but what about those that consume far more than the average? Can we limit the choices people have in their consumption through policy? After all, tackling high end users could help us reduce energy consumption ‘furthest and fastest’. As Oxfam have shown, the world’s wealthiest 10% are responsible for nearly 50% of lifestyle consumption emissions. The workshop did not spare academics, with one example of excess being flying to a conference ‘simply to get inspiration’.

A typology of excess energy use from Jillian Anable and Tim Chatterton’s Exploring Excess work

Several papers referenced Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, which suggests a safe space for humanity that lies between the minimum people need for life’s essentials, and the  maximum that doesn’t overwhelm Earth’s life-supporting systems (the so-called ‘planetary boundaries’). There were some discussions about whether we would all have the same Doughnut, or if, for example, the French would have a larger Doughnut than Mozambique, as lifestyles in France required more energy to participate in everyday life.

Doughnut economics shows the safe and just space for humanity (credits: Image by DoughnutEconomics shared under CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

There’s no denying that eceee is a pleasure: sun, sea and socialising alongside lectures, workshops and informal sessions keep us coming back every two years. Yet in some previous Summer Studies I’ve felt a frustration at the limited discussion of deep systemic changes, such as challenging the economic growth paradigm when discussing sustainability. It felt like something had shifted this time, perhaps a combination of the sufficiency work in the energy community and climate activism gathering momentum. Inspiring enough for Marina Diakonova from Oxford University and me to propose in the final plenary that eceee follow others and declare a climate and environment emergency. Now the ball is in the court of the eceee board. Hopefully, they’ll respond as a matter of urgency.

Feature image: Sunrise at the eceee Summer Study 2019 by Rod Janssen

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