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Human wellbeing is a more effective focus area when discussing energy solutions

When discussing the “hot topic” of climate change, switching the focus to energy solutions — how energy is supplied to how energy is consumed — can be a more effective approach.

Reducing global carbon emissions has the added benefit of improving wellbeing for all, and when push comes to shove, who doesn’t want a better, happier life?

The Energy Demand Changes Induced by Technological and Social Innovations (EDITS) network, coordinated by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), recently published a commentary that sheds light on an often-overlooked aspect of tackling climate change: the way humans consume energy.

Their insightful piece argues that a shift from focusing on energy supply to understanding and altering energy consumption could be a more effective and beneficial approach when discussing the need to reduce carbon emissions.

Energy solutions, climate, and wellbeing

We are in a period marked by the worsening effects of climate change, fluctuating energy markets, and geopolitical tensions.

These factors complicate the task of policymakers in ensuring the provision of secure, clean, and affordable energy.

Despite these challenges, there is a growing public support for changing our energy usage habits, which presents new opportunities.

The authors of the commentary suggest that improving how we consume energy to meet human needs could significantly reduce total energy demand by 2050.

This reduction would make it easier to decarbonize energy supply. They refer to a ‘High-with-Low’ scenario, which envisions high wellbeing with low energy and material consumption, aligning with the targets set by the Paris Agreement.

“There are numerous ways for us to dramatically reduce the energy we consume while improving our standards of living, the quality of our cities, and our social wellbeing. Our analysis shows this should be the ‘first best’ strategy for tackling climate change,” says senior IIASA researcher Charlie Wilson, who is one of the authors.

Societal and technological transformations

The commentary highlights the need for societal and technological transformations that could lead to new, sustainable lifestyles.

It’s not about shifting the responsibility of climate mitigation to individuals but empowering them with the right infrastructure, technology, and incentives.

“Placing individual level transformations at the center of solutions to drastically reduce energy consumption globally does not mean shifting the responsibility of climate mitigation to people,” says IIASA researcher and coauthor of the commentary Benigna Boza-Kiss.

“On the contrary, it is about empowering people by providing access to the right infrastructure, technology, and incentives. Many new cities will be built in the developing world so there is a huge opportunity to foster inclusive growth by staying clear of unsustainable practices.”

Demand-side energy solutions

Policymakers often emphasize the supply of energy. However, the EDITS network members argue that understanding and tailoring the demand for energy resources is equally important.

Demand-side solutions include policies and measures that modify demand to reduce energy and material requirements, thereby lowering GHG emissions and improving overall wellbeing.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, demand-side solutions could reduce GHG emissions in many sectors.

These areas include buildings, transport, retail, and industry by 40–70% by 2050. This approach offers a multi-faceted increase in wellbeing without reducing service levels.

Masahiro Sugiyama, lead author of the commentary and professor at the University of Tokyo, notes the challenges in researching demand-side scenarios.

“Research on ‘High-with-Low’ demand-side scenarios is challenging because scenarios have to deal with various demand-side technologies as well as a wide range of cultures and social practices,” said Sugiyama.

“However, the time is ripe to kick-start a new frontier of climate change mitigation modeling and scenario research,” she concluded.

Low energy demand scenarios

While some local and national bodies, like the governments of Paris and Barcelona, are encouraging demand-side solutions, there is still a predominant focus on supply-side solutions.

The authors argue for a greater emphasis on modeling low energy and material demand scenarios, as they minimize the trade-offs in tackling climate change.

In summary, this article emphasizes a critical shift in our approach to combating climate change and energy solutions, advocated by the EDITS network and IIASA.

By actively transitioning our focus from how we supply energy to how we consume it, we can achieve a significant reduction in carbon emissions while simultaneously enhancing global wellbeing.

This strategic change underscores the power of rethinking and transforming our energy usage habits, presenting a more sustainable and effective solution in our ongoing battle against climate change.

The full study was published in the journal Joule.


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