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Energy sufficiency, a French political concept still misunderstood in Europe

France has made energy sufficiency – the deliberate reduction of energy consumption – one of the three pillars of its decarbonisation strategy, alongside nuclear and renewables. However, Brussels and other European capitals have yet to fully embrace the approach.

The French government presented its energy sobriety plan in October last year, at a time when the country’s nuclear fleet was partly out of service and Europe was facing winter gas shortages following the Russian military aggression in Ukraine.

‘Energy sufficiency’ seeks to influence behavioural change, in a planned and deliberate way, in order to reduce energy consumption. For Paris, the goal was to reduce energy use by 10% by the end of 2024.

The government slated 15 key measures “on the whole range of energy savings” – from reducing heating to a maximum of 19°C in offices, to reducing shower time and encouraging people to carpool.

This was a “first step towards the objective of reducing final energy consumption by 40%” between 2022 and 2050, said the Energy Transition Minister, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, who spoke at a hearing in the French Senate on 24 May.

It was also an important step towards achieving the European objective of reducing energy consumption by 11.7% by 2030, as set out in the Energy Efficiency Directive, which was being revised at the time.

According to the directive, energy savings are “the amount of saved energy determined by measuring and/or estimating consumption before and after implementation of one or more energy efficiency improvement measures”.

Does this mean that energy sufficiency is a part of energy efficiency improvement measures? According to the IPCC, sufficiency is defined as “a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human well-being for all within planetary boundaries”.

Conversely, energy efficiency involves reducing energy consumption for a given good or service.

While the two concepts share the same objective of reducing energy consumption, there is a fundamental difference: where efficiency means replacing an internal combustion car with an electric car, sufficiency means taking a bicycle, explains the Jacques Delors Institute in a May 2022 briefing note.

In that sense, sufficiency represents a more radical departure from existing consumption patterns that prompts a structural change in behaviour rather than being focused on the short term.

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No equivalent in the EU

In Europe, the concept is still little known and the term “energy sufficiency” has not been translated into EU legislation.

Yet, the European Commission defends the integration of the concept into European policies, telling EURACTIV that the EU supports measures that member states can take in the areas of building insulation, for instance.

Brussels also points out that it took measures to reduce the EU’s energy consumption ahead of last winter, when it proposed binding targets and incentives to reduce demand for gas and electricity in response to the Russian gas crisis.

However, these targets were only temporary and did not set out precise measures to achieve them, leaving the member states a large degree of leeway in implementing them.

Berlin adopted the same approach as Brussels. Last April, Germany ratified a law on energy efficiency but the text limits itself to setting up energy demand management measures.

Faced with the gas crisis, the German government also took circumstantial measures to reduce energy consumption before last winter. But, these were “short-term sufficiency measures in response to the crisis, not the result of a change in the structural, legal and economic approach to reducing energy consumption”, an official from the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action explained to EURACTIV.

From that perspective, sufficiency would therefore rather refer to a structural approach aimed at changing demand patterns and reduce energy consumption in the long term.

By contrast, the office of France’s energy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher presents the French approach to sufficiency as a unique “method”.

“We have worked from the top down, asking each stakeholder (public administration, business, civil society) to take stock of their consumption and report it back to the government, rather than directly defining measures that apply to everyone arbitrarily,” the office explained to EURACTIV.

This singularity has been enshrined as one of the three pillars set out by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, along with the development of nuclear power and renewable energies.

To build structural sufficiency, France uses scenarios on the future of energy that take into account a reduction in energy consumption. However, no such work exists at the European level.

“I’ve seen this in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Transport,” says Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of EU programmes at the Institute for Climate Economics (I4CE). For instance, in its 2018 work on climate scenarios for 2050, the Commission did not include a scenario where European citizens would reduce the number of kilometres travelled, he explained.

In this regard, the other EU member states “have not necessarily embraced the idea that sufficiency is an essential building block of the energy transition,” according to Pannier-Runacher. “Looking collectively at the consumption model seems more questionable” at European level, Pannier-Runacher told the French Senate hearing.

On this basis, France has a “form of political leadership, with a level of technical and administrative appropriation of the concept of sufficiency that I have not yet seen in other EU countries,” Pellerin-Carlin said.

Even today, “sufficiency as a lever in the fight against global warming is an emerging concept. A lot of research is aimed at informing European decision-makers on this subject,” he told EURACTIV.

This is the case of the FULFILL project, funded by the EU and currently under development. The project aims to inform European decision-makers about sufficiency and the levers for implementing it.

Pannier-Runacher is not losing hope: “The European Commission is interested,” she says. For the time being, the sufficiency identified as a structural pillar of decarbonisation “is not yet a very well-defined policy […] so as to make it an unavoidable element” of European policymaking, she explains.

As a result, a temporary approach to sufficiency, as was the case last winter, should still be “the most likely” in terms of European measures for the coming winter, argues Pellerin-Carlin.

However, Pannier-Runacher’s office warns that “in the long term, we will not achieve our energy consumption reduction targets by relying solely on energy efficiency”.

Source: Eura CTIV