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Low energy vision for the European region

We’re facing the climate emergency. In the next 20 years, Europe needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least twice as much as it did in the past 30 years. This requires phasing out fossil fuels, and the fastest possible development of new low-carbon energy sources such as electrical renewables. But this, together with global sustainability, mostly requires keeping energy demand under control.

Over the past 20 years, successful energy efficiency policies have enabled progress in the performance of appliances, vehicles, or processes. However, as we approach multiple planetary boundaries, it is now becoming increasingly clear that relying solely on efficiency measures, driven by technological innovation to save energy, will not bridge the gap. Indeed, as the “rebound effect” describes, technological improvements in a given sector can paradoxically come with behaviours that increase consumption and therefore emissions, like the rising distances covered at rising speed in increasingly heavy vehicles.

Energy efficiency changes the amount of energy consumed to deliver a given level of service, without questioning that level. It’s time to complement it with energy sufficiency, which addresses the nature and level of energy-consuming services. Energy sufficiency responds to the two major challenges of the energy transition: the social and the environmental aspects. It aims to keep consumption between two limits: the satisfaction of a minimum decent level of energy services for all, according to the principle of equity and fair share, and a maximum level that does not endanger the carrying capacity of the Earth.

The CLEVER scenario, a Collaborative Low Energy Vision for the European Region, is an energy transition scenario that responds to these challenges by looking first at the demand side before considering the decarbonisation potential of the energy supply, following a “sufficiency – efficiency – renewables” approach. Starting the modelling of the energy system with an analysis of energy services makes it possible to question the need for these services and to define fair levels. This innovative scenario, published in June 2023, was developed by a network of 26 organisations (think tanks, research institutes, technical universities, civil society organisations, etc.) from 20 European countries, under the leadership of the French association négaWatt.

Its bottom-up  construction aggregates national pathways into an integrated European scenario, considering national circumstances and pursuing principles of fair burden sharing and increased equity between and within the countries covered. Indeed, the application of the sufficiency principle makes it possible to redistribute efforts between reducing excessive consumption and catching up with a minimum level of services for all, with consumption levels per capita converging in Europe towards 2050. For example, travel distances per capita, which are twice as long in France as in Poland, are projected to converge in a much narrower corridor. This is facilitated by policies which particularly target the most unsustainable consumption patterns, such as a frequent flyer levy (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Change in the average distance travelled per capita per year in several European countries in the CLEVER scenario.

When applied through sectors and services, CLEVER concludes that the adoption of sufficiency policies in the EU could double the energy savings achievable by relying on energy efficiency improvements alone. Overall, EU final energy consumption could (and should) be reduced by 55% by 2050 compared to 2019 (of which between 20% and 30% can be achieved through sufficiency measures compared to 2019 levels, with variations between countries and sectors).

This reduction in energy consumption, combined with an accelerated development of renewable energy, could enable a reduction in net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 65 per cent in 2030 and 93 per cent in 2040, on the way to climate neutrality in 2045. This would allow Europe to remain on a 1.5°C-compatible pathway and to be fully independent from all forms of energy imports in 2050 (including hydrogen or e-fuels).

By reducing the cost and scale of required equipment replacement (e.g. electric cars, heating systems...), renewable installations, electricity network, energy storage and the associated impacts on materials and land use, sufficiency can make the EU targets more likely to reach and maximise their co-benefits and acceptance. It also enables the achievement of an energy system fully based on renewable energy, thus avoiding risky and costly options such as Carbon Capture and Storage or new nuclear.

Finally, sufficiency is a quick and effective response, and therefore also realistic to implement. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the rate of deployment of renewables or electrification could be increased massively without harming important aspects of strong sustainability such as materials depletion, biodiversity, or social acceptance. Hence the need to increase renewables penetration while containing the overall volume of the system (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Evolution of the final energy consumption for EU27 in the CLEVER scenario.

Some European countries have already implemented sufficiency measures, such as the “climate ticket” in Austria, the 2000 watt target in Zurich, the creation of local agencies for collective housing in Germany, the reduction of the speed limit on motorways to 100 km/h in the Netherlands, or the ban on short-haul flights where there is a 2.5-hour train alternative in France. A research project in Germany has identified more than 330 sufficiency-related policies and measures. The point is not to force people to change their behaviour, but first to develop a democratic debate about the kind of ambition to aim for, then to create the systemic conditions and infrastructure to facilitate and support societal changes.

For this to happen, sufficiency needs to be put at the forefront of European policy making. Citizens seem more ready than policymakers tend to think, as shown by the positive response to short-term sufficiency measures driven by last year’s energy crisis, or illustrated by recent research findings that EU and national citizen assemblies tend to support sufficiency policies (up to 40–50% of their proposals) much more than government plans (less than 10% in the corresponding countries) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Share of sufficiency policies in total climate mitigation policies by country (Citizens Assemblies and National Energy and Climate Plans), Lage et al., EU Uni Flensburg/EnSu, 2023.

Sufficiency promises multiple co-benefits in terms of health, wellbeing, and social justice. All stakeholders need to be mobilised to enable change and concrete implementation at all levels of governance. This change, together with the necessary evolution of social standards, will need to be guided and accompanied, and the EU’s energy and climate policies must lead the way. The upcoming European elections provide an opportunity that should not be missed to point out the right direction.

Fabien Baudelet
Stephane Bourgeois
Yves Marignac
- négaWatt Association

négaWatt is a French think tank carrying out independent energy prospective work in order to show that an energy transition is not only technically feasible but also desirable for society. Thanks to the complementary nature and field expertise of its members, the association produces energy and climate neutrality scenarios through a systemic approach based on sufficiency, efficiency and renewables (latest in 2021 for France) and proposes policies and measures for a sustainable energy future.

CLEVER supporting documents:


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