By Ella Witts
As awareness of the climate crisis has entered the mainstream, it has become almost synonymous with the drive for a cleaner energy supply. Yet preventing dangerous global warming requires not only a consideration of the source of the energy we use, but also how much we use, known as energy demand: if currently anticipated transformations of energy supply play out, energy demand also needs to grow significantly more slowly than our economies to stay within safe climatic limits. Indeed, as well as changes in supply like through renewables, the integrated modelling scenarios discussed in the previous article also include the so-called ‘first fuel’ — energy efficiency.
Far from being an abstract concept, energy demand trajectories have tangible implications for individual people and communities. Energy is fundamental to human life, critical for activities from cooking to transport. So what impact will the need for reduced growth in energy demand have on human life? Are global efforts to eradicate poverty compatible with global efforts to combat climate change?
A recent study in Nature Energy aimed to address such questions. The team calculated the energy required to achieve ‘decent living standards’ in India, Brazil and South Africa, drawing on previous research into the material requirements for basic human wellbeing, such as adequate nutrition and safe shelter. Across all three countries, they found that decent living standards can be achieved while maintaining energy demand at levels compatible with safe climate change. This is a promising outcome, but translating it into reality urgently requires tactical policy interventions that embed energy efficiency in efforts to achieve development priorities, like public transportation and sustainable housing construction.
Beyond basic human needs, Rao and colleagues showed that the three countries — especially India — have little room left in their energy demand budget for the extensive consumption and affluence prevalent in developed countries. This begs the sticky questions of fairness so often brought up by climate change. Only strong international and interdisciplinary collaboration — with people as well as the planet in mind — can ensure that climate action meets its strong potential to become a transformative force, socially and environmentally.
Ella is a Masters student studying Environmental Management at Yale’s School of Environment. Having also worked in the energy sector, her main interest is in achieving an energy transition that benefits the most people as much as possible, now and in the future. She is originally from the UK and spends her free time running, cycling, and swimming.