“Energy Sufficiency”- evolving the energy conversation

06 Dec 2018

Climate change, its current effects, future risks and calls for urgent action are seldom far from the news. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C. It presented vivid warnings of the dangers of increasing climate change, and called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to reduce these risks.

In November, the United Nations Environment Programme released its ‘Emissions Gap Report 2018’ which concluded that nations need to ‘triple efforts to reach the 2C target’. While established options for reducing carbon emissions, including energy efficiency, renewable energy and land use management, will contribute to action – they may well not be enough. For example, the International Energy Agency’s recent, ambitious ‘efficient world’ scenario to 2040, results in higher global energy demand than today.

UKERC is contributing to developing new ideas about energy policy and policy goals though involvement in an energy sufficiency project. The recently launched website features a report by Sarah Darby and Tina Fawcett giving an introduction to energy sufficiency and exploring the concept. This is part of a wider project on sufficiency supported by ECEEE (European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy) and the KR Foundation. Work is being carried out by researchers across Europe, and other reports include one on sufficiency and the rebound effect, and another on products and sufficiency. Discussion about the results and issues raised will continue with workshops being planned for London and Paris in 2019. Further, ECEEE’s biannual ‘summer study’ conference has as its theme ‘is efficient sufficient?’

Our paper began by offering a definition of energy sufficiency:

“Energy sufficiency is a state in which people’s basic needs for energy services are met equitably and ecological limits are respected”.

Many of the words and phrases within the definition are debated and discussed within the paper – particularly the use of ‘energy services’, rather than energy, the distinction between needs and wants, and what we might mean by ‘equitably’. The paper raises some of the key issues for Europeans to consider as we move from talking about the concept of energy sufficiency to putting it into practice. It also develops initial ideas about how current energy and energy efficiency policies could be reoriented towards delivering energy sufficiency.

The definition of energy sufficiency has been depicted as a doughnut. The space within the boundaries – the doughnut itself – is a safe space for humanity. Within this, everyone has access to the energy services to support their fundamental needs and, at the same time, the energy system does not exceed any of the planet’s environmental limits. The inner boundary of the doughnut is the minimum of energy required to meet basic energy service needs (delivering shelter, mobility etc.), the outer boundary is the maximum which can be consumed without exceeding ecological boundaries (carbon concentrations, air pollution etc.).

Energy sufficiency depicted as a doughnut

This diagram was inspired by and adapted from the sustainable development doughnut, developed by Kate Raworth, originally for Oxfam, and further in her book, Doughnut Economics.

By considering energy sufficiency, rather sustainable energy, new routes to energy demand and emissions reduction are opened. There can be a flowering of energy policy. Potential additional approaches to policy and action include: changing use of time, new economic paradigms and non-energy energy policies. Some petals in the flower are deliberately blank, for readers’ own ideas.

Energy sufficiency: suggestions for a flowering of energy policy


This work on sufficiency is still in its early stages. However, we believe it usefully opens up the conversation about ensuring enough energy services for all, and what those might be, while responding to the calls from scientific, civil society and political leaders for rapid change to protect the natural environment on which we all depend.