There is no doubt that the greenhouse gas emissions that are worldwide released into the atmosphere are triggering climate change. There is also no doubt that – despite significant emission reductions in recent decades – the EU still has to further transform its production and consumption systems in order to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, as is stipulated in the European Climate Law.
As recognised in the PATHS 2050 project, technology alone simply cannot solve the climate neutrality challenge. Instead, a comprehensive approach is needed that takes into account not only technological advances, but also policy measures, behavioural changes, social acceptance, infrastructure development, and international cooperation. This is not a simple matter, and that is exactly why European Topic Centres were brought onto the scene.
European Topic Centres and the role of EnergyVille/VITO
European Topic Centres are specialised thematic research consortia appointed by the European Environment Agency (EEA). These centres are the result of a European-wide competitive selection process, to work as an extension of the EEA in specific thematic areas. Together with the EEA’s member and cooperating countries, the Topic Centres facilitate the delivery of data, information, and knowledge. They also provide reports and other services to the EEA and its European Information and Observation Network (Eionet). Today, there are seven European Topic Centres supporting the EEA in fulfilling its mission: to support sustainable development and contribute to a significant and measurable improvement in Europe’s environment and climate.
EnergyVille/VITO is the proud coordinator of the European Topic Centre on Climate Change Mitigation (ETC-CM). This project brings together no less than fifteen partners from ten different European countries. The ETC-CM processes, aggregates, and analyses key data and information on greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, and energy efficiency in the EU. As such, the ETC-CM tracks the EU’s progress in meeting its climate and energy targets and provides key insights and knowledge to accelerate the transition to a climate neutral society.
The Sufficiency Report
In 2022, the EEA asked ETC-CM coordinator EnergyVille/VITO and ETC-CM partner Oeko-Institut (The Institute for Applied Ecology) to provide a scoping paper on sufficiency, a concept that has received increasing attention over the years. Sufficiency, as defined in the 2022 IPCC Report, is “a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries”.
For the scoping paper, Oeko-Institut delivered its experience on sufficiency in energy system modelling, cause-effect chains of sufficiency, climate protection measures and emissions analysis. EnergyVille/VITO provided its expertise on behavioural aspects of energy demand reduction policies in the energy transition. Indeed, EnergyVille/VITO has been working on this topic for many years, with successful projects – such as the streamSAVE project, where behavioural change to reduce energy demand is one of the priority actions – and support work for the ETC-CM.
The scoping paper aims to provide an overview of the concept of sufficiency and offer recommendations on how it could be operationalised in the context of EU or national policy making and does this in the shape of eight interesting key findings. Because sufficiency is more than just behavioural change; it is in fact an enabler of that change and the key to reaching goals. Discover below why this is the case.
Eight key findings
1. Sufficiency is more than behavioural change
Sufficiency is a concept that goes beyond individual behavioural change to encompass structural changes in society and organizations. It involves a shift to less resource-intensive production and consumption patterns, which can be achieved through a range of policies and cultural shifts. These policies include regulations, incentives, educational campaigns, planning and urban strategies and codes.
Indeed, according to Marco Ortiz, expert at EnergyVille/VITO in the societal aspects and policies of the energy transition, sufficiency does not just come down to changing behaviours or policies. It is also a matter of transforming mental models and systems that encourage resource-intensive production and consumption. Ortiz: “Systems thinking provides a framework for understanding the complex interrelationships between different elements in a system, including mental models that shape our values, attitudes, beliefs, and actions within that system.”
Ortiz also believes that these mental models can reinforce or challenge the dominant societal values and norms that prioritize economic growth and consumption over environmental and social well-being. “To achieve sufficiency, we must change our current mental models and the underlying systems that drive our consumption and production patterns. To do this, we need to recognize the points where change can have the most impact for the benefit of every person on this planet,” Ortiz concludes.
One example is the sufficiency approach in the construction industry, where reuse and renovation are preferred to demolition and new construction. Existing structures can then be reused thanks to energy-efficient renovations – not only expanding their lifespan, but also adapting their function. In this way, sufficiency practices reduce waste production and resource consumption. This approach is not only useful in the construction industry, but can be implemented in many different sectors, from mobility to food, clothing, goods, and leisure.
2. Sufficiency is pivotal to reaching deep sustainability
The concept of sustainability has focused on improving energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewable energy. However, these measures alone are not enough. To complement efficiency and renewable energy sources, sufficiency emphasizes the need to reduce overall resource and energy consumption. This can only be achieved through a fundamental change in the way we individually and collectively produce and consume goods and services.
3. Sufficiency has many benefits
By reducing resource consumption, sufficiency can help to address a range of environmental challenges and stop the further crossing of planetary boundaries, including – but not limited to – climate change. At the same time, sufficiency can lead to the development of new sustainable products and services. This creates the possibility of new jobs and economic opportunities once new economic models are implemented, namely circular economy and Product as a Service.
In addition, switching to behaviour that consumes fewer resources also carries secondary benefits. This is the case, for example, for health, well-being, and quality of life. Indeed, by including sufficiency in other energy transition strategies, policymakers can ensure that the transition to cleaner energy sources benefits everyone in society. Examples include fighting energy poverty, preventing environmental degradation, and promoting sustainable lifestyles that conserve resources. Thus, sufficiency contributes to an energy system that is not only more balanced, but also more fair. And that is precisely a fundamental goal of a just energy transition.
However, there is a fear among policymakers and economists that sufficiency could lead to a degrowth of the economy. Therefore, further research is needed to understand the economic implications of sufficiency and economic progress indicators, which include wellbeing, social and ecological factors.
4. Sufficiency has a high mitigation potential
According to several studies – including the 2022 IPCC report – sufficiency measures can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that implementing sufficiency could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 40-70% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.
5. Sufficiency is not being addressed in the EU as a separate subject
On the path to becoming climate neutral by 2050, energy sufficiency has not been addressed as ambitiously in European legislation.
More ambitious policies and targets are needed to reach climate neutrality. Therefore, policymakers should be ready to implement policies that encourage the reduction of consumption. These include promoting public transportation, reducing air travel, consuming on a local scale while also consuming less in general, greening, and preventing food waste.
For now, sufficiency does not yet receive full attention and support from policymakers, partly because it focuses on the consumption patterns of individuals and organisations. In France, for example, sufficiency policies have only found attention and support in recent years. The 2021 national elections were an important tipping point in this regard, as official bodies published climate neutrality scenarios in which sufficiency was seen as a viable option, reinforcing its credibility.
6. Citizens call for more sufficiency policies
Even though sufficiency is not yet politically mainstreamed, citizens do seem to be calling for more sufficiency policies. In the European Citizens Panel on “Climate Change and the Environment/Health,” about 50% of the total policy recommendations were related to sufficiency. Most of these policy recommendations were found in the transport sector and were supported by at least 70% of the 200 citizens from all EU member states who participated in the panel.
Policy should therefore recognise the importance of involving citizens in the policymaking process and ensure that policies are designed based on citizens’ preferences.
7. A budget approach would support sufficiency
Carbon budgets are tools that can help reduce a person’s or organization’s carbon consumption. Combined with targets, limits and pricing mechanisms for carbon emissions and consumption, these policies create incentives for consumers to reduce their environmental impact. In addition, providing information on the carbon footprint of goods and services can enable consumers to make more informed and sustainable consumption choices.
Nevertheless, implementing carbon budget instruments on a larger scale can be challenging. Indeed, this would require coherent synchronisation with local policies. Carbon budgets could be aligned with existing policies such as the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), but their design and implementation would need to be tailored to the specific national context. Thus, to ensure computability and minimise potential conflicts, it is important that all this is done at the national level.
8. We need more sufficiency modelling and indicators
More sufficiency modelling and indicators can provide a more comprehensive and nuanced analysis of sufficiency. Using systems thinking with modelling can help identify the most effective decarbonization pathways by considering the interdependent social, economic, environmental, and behavioural factors.
By analysing sufficiency strategies in a modelled systemic framework, policymakers and end users can gain greater clarity about the benefits and make trade-offs associated with different policy options.
Sufficiency: the key to a sustainable future
The eight key findings of the Sufficiency Report shed light on the crucial role of sufficiency in addressing climate change and promoting sustainability. We can conclude that sufficiency goes beyond individual behavioural change and highlights the need for structural changes in society and organizations to achieve a climate-neutral future. Sufficiency is complementary to efficiency and renewable energy sources and thus focuses on reducing overall resource and consumption. Sufficiency can not only help address a range of environmental problems but can also create new jobs and economic opportunities while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Policymakers should therefore be prepared to take a multifaceted approach that balances policies that influence individual behaviour, address systemic causes of consumption, and encourage acceptance of new behaviour by changing mental models. Regulations, incentives, educational campaigns, and urban strategies all play a central role in driving sufficiency-oriented change. Bearing that in mind, the successful implementation of sufficiency requires collective efforts. Indeed, citizens demand that more sufficiency policies be implemented. Their voices should be actively involved in the policy-making process to ensure that policies are tailored to the citizens’ preferences and needs.
To effectively promote sufficiency-oriented strategies, there is a need for more sufficiency modelling and indicators that provide a comprehensive and nuanced analysis of sufficiency that considers the complex interplay of social, economic, environmental, and behavioural factors. Such an approach can determine the most effective decarbonization path and guide policymakers and stakeholders toward sustainable solutions. In particular, a budget approach can help reduce carbon consumption by encouraging consumers to reduce their environmental impact and make more informed and sustainable consumption choices.
And finally, more research is needed to understand the economic implications of sufficiency and the indicators of economic progress. This research will make it possible to fully implement the concept of sufficiency. Research is essential to understand and demonstrate the economic benefits of sufficiency-driven practices. Indicators of economic progress that include welfare, social equity and ecological factors are required to measure and promote sustainable economic development.
The path to a climate-neutral society requires a systemic approach that balances policy, systemic change, and the adoption of new lifestyles. By doing so, we can build a durable future and create a world in which the well-being of both humanity and the environment flourishes. Sufficiency offers a path forward, and it is our collective responsibility to embrace and implement it for a brighter and more sustainable future.
To discover more about the fascinating topic of sufficiency, download the full Sufficiency Report by clicking the link below.