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The UK could comfortably cut energy use in half to meet climate targets. Here’s how.

A new study suggests that reducing energy demand is a cheap, reliable strategy to fight climate change.
June 28, 2022

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Dramatic yet feasible changes to industry, technology, and society could enable people in the UK to cut their energy use in half by 2050, according to a new study. And rather than feeling deprived by the effort to save energy, people would likely be better off in many ways, researchers say.

Historically, rising quality of life has been accompanied by increasing energy use. That pattern leads to skepticism about fighting climate change by using less energy because people fear they will have less comfortable lives.

In developing countries, energy use does need to increase in order to improve health, nutrition, housing, and overall quality of life. But several recent studies have suggested that in wealthy countries a significant portion of energy use doesn’t really contribute to quality of life, and energy use could be cut without making people worse off.

The trouble is that past studies have mostly provided a big-picture, global look at the potential for reducing energy use. But under the Paris Agreement, it’s individual countries that are responsible for cutting emissions. So in the new study, a group of researchers in the UK set out to develop a way to estimate the potential for reducing energy use at a national level.

They used a series of computer models to simulate possible futures for the UK’s energy system and society. The analysis takes into account trends that impact energy demand, such as globalization of economies, increasing environmental consciousness, and automation of work, as well as how energy demand varies in different economic sectors such as manufacturing, housing, and food.

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The researchers repeated their analysis for four different scenarios. The least ambitious scenario, for example, more or less sticks with the status quo based on a recent UK government estimate of the energy system in 2050 and does not assume there will be any efforts to reduce demand.

Meanwhile, the most ambitious scenario envisions a suite of changes affecting many aspects of society, ranging from an increase in the prevalence of vegetarianism to widespread adoption of heat pumps for home heating. Some of the changes are sweeping (introduction of a 4-day work week that reduces commuting trips) and others are strikingly granular (reducing energy use in air conditioning units by 5% due to everyone becoming diligent about cleaning the coils).

In the most ambitious scenario, energy use in the UK would be 40 gigajoules (GJ) per person per year in 2050, the researchers report in the journal Nature Energy. That’s roughly one-third of the current average of 116 GJ in wealthy nations, and it’s even below the current global average of 55 GJ.

The most ambitious scenario would achieve a 52% reduction in energy use compared to current UK statistics, while a focus on energy efficiency alone would yield only a 31% reduction in energy use. “The difference highlights the important role that shifting and avoiding demand can play in reducing energy use,” the researchers write.

The findings are consistent with global studies of the potential for reducing energy demand, which have also suggested that it’s possible for wealthy nations to cut their energy to a similar level with no ill effects.

The changes aimed at avoiding energy demand come with “strong co-benefits of climate action, such as healthier active lifestyles, lower urban airborne pollution and improved work-life balance,” the researchers write. What’s more, less energy use means the country won’t need to spend as much money to build new power plants or other electricity infrastructure, freeing up money to spend on other things instead.

A smaller energy system is also cheaper and easier to decarbonize than a larger one. And reducing emissions by reducing energy demand means that carbon capture – still an expensive and uncertain technology – won’t be necessary in order to meet climate targets.

The study suggests that reducing energy demand is not only possible but necessary: in one of the scenarios the team considered, improved energy efficiency, more low-carbon energy, and lots of carbon capture would still fail to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 2050. “This implies that without further demand-side efforts, the United Kingdom’s net-zero target will be very difficult to meet,” the researchers note.

Source: Barrett J. et al. “Energy demand reduction options for meeting national zero-emission targets in the United Kingdom.” Nature Energy 2022.

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