Energy demand reduction could help to tackle the climate emergency

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Sam Betts-Davies and John Barrett

The global response to the climate crisis is often framed around the idea of achieving global net-zero emissions early in the second half of the 21st century. In the UK, this has manifested into a legally binding net-zero commitment, by 2050. Whilst this date is close enough to play on our minds, it also places little immediate pressure to act, after all, it’s still almost 30 years away. The reality is that it is the next 10 years that count.

At a global level, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we have around 420 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions left to emit if we are to stay within the agreed global target of 1.5 degrees of warming. At current levels of emissions that budget will have been used up in under 10 years, making the case for immediate and far reaching climate action in the next decade that leads to substantial emissions reduction.

Speaking broadly, there are three levers through which we can reduce CO2 emissions. We can use less energy (energy demand reduction), produce the energy with less CO2 (decarbonisation) or remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere (Carbon Dioxide Removal – CDR).

In our new report, The role of energy demand reduction in achieving net-zero in the UK, we argue that we have yet to fully explore the potential of one of these levers; the role of energy demand in climate policy. For the first time, we comprehensively assess how much the UK could reduce our energy demand to meet ambitious short-term emission reduction targets and our long term net-zero ambitions.

Our research shows that the UK could reduce its energy demand by 52% by 2050 relative to 2020 levels. This highlights the massive potential contribution energy demand reduction could make to reducing the UK’s emissions and tackling the climate emergency.

Crucially, this reduction can be sustained whilst meeting the energy-related needs of society, such as warm comfortable homes, healthy nutritious diets, accessible transport networks, and flexible spaces to work.

Unlocking the potential for energy demand reduction makes achieving ambitious climate goals easier, with less risk of failure

Reducing our demand for energy lowers the risks of missing our climate targets in a number of ways. Lowering the UK’s energy demand reduces emissions directly, by burning fewer fossil-fuels to fulfil our energy needs.

Beyond this, energy demand reduction helps us to produce a greater proportion of the energy that we still need to use in a sustainable way, emitting far less or no CO2. Our demand for energy determines the size of the energy system that is needed, and our net-zero target means that the energy system has to be transformed to fully decarbonise the UK economy. This includes retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient, replacing all vehicles with low carbon modes of travel, investing in new industrial processes, and replacing fossil-fuel energy supply infrastructure, with renewables. In fact, our modelling shows that without change in the demand for energy services, the electricity system would need to grow by almost three times its current size, all whilst ensuring that this electricity was coming from renewable sources. This challenge is enormous. The risks of not being able to achieve our climate targets in time are high.

However, a smaller energy system, achieved by reducing our demand for energy services and using energy more efficiently, helps to moderate these challenges and lower the risk. A smaller energy system means we would need far fewer wind or solar farms, far fewer batteries to store electricity for our homes or cars, and less energy infrastructure. This would enable a much quicker transition to low-carbon energy production, reducing the amount of emissions the UK produces between now and 2050. Given that these technologies require significant investment, a smaller energy system also means the cost of the transition to a net-zero economy is less.

A smaller energy system also reduces the reliance on expensive and unproven CDR techniques, which are often relied upon heavily in scenarios to mop up emissions that are difficult to eliminate in other ways. Given the deep uncertainties around the future capacities of CDR techniques, avoiding over-dependence on these techniques to achieve net-zero is central to increasing our chances of achieving the necessary climate action.

Our research shows that energy demand reduction needs to play a central role in reducing emissions in the short term. We identify a broad suite of options to reduce our demand for energy that are currently available, achieving a smaller energy system that is easier to decarbonise. Energy demand reduction represents a low risk climate policy lever that in large parts can be deployed immediately, making significant emissions reductions in the crucial next decade.

Banner photo credit: Steve Halama on Unsplash