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The energy debate must consider demand – not just supply

This is a guest post by Rebecca Willis, a Green Alliance associate. It was first published on

It is based on Demanding Less: Why we need a new politics of energy, by Rebecca Willis and Nick Eyre, which was launched at a recent Green Alliance catalyst debate (watch video).


A few years ago, Jeffrey Dukes, a US biologist, was driving through the deserts of Utah on his way to a research station. As his car ate up the miles, he began thinking about the fuel in the tank, and the plants that it had come from. How many ancient plants, he wondered, had it taken to power him across the desert? He asked around, but couldn’t find out. “The more I searched, the more frustrated I got. No one knew the answer.”

So he did the sums himself. He worked out that a staggering 25 tonnes of plant matter go into every single litre of petrol. “I realised,” says Dukes, “that nearly everything I do depends upon plants that grew millions of years ago; and that without them, my life would be completely different.”

Dukes realised what most of us take for granted: that the modern world we live in is shaped by what he memorably calls “buried sunshine”: fossil fuels. We each use around 15 times the energy that we did 300 years ago, before the industrial revolution. US energy secretary, Steven Chu, likes to tell Americans that they each have the equivalent of a hundred slaves working for them. That’s the amount of muscle power that would have to be substituted for fossil fuel. Energy has shaped our society. It governs where and how we live; what we eat; and how we travel.

And yet, despite all the worries about climate change and energy security, there is a fundamental question that we rarely ask: why do we need so much energy to power our lives?

Debates about energy focus overwhelmingly on energy supply. Should we go for renewables, nuclear or both? Will carbon capture and storage work? What happens if Russia cuts off supplies of gas? These questions are generally asked, and answered, by a small group of technical specialists in business and government – the kinds of people who can talk with enthusiasm about electricity market reform and renewables obligation certificates.

Sure, in recent years, there has been a very welcome focus on energy efficiency, for buildings and transport in particular. But the basic assumption is this: we can increase efficiency, and substitute high-carbon for low-carbon energy, and our lives will stay pretty much the same as they are now.

This is just not true. There are models – commissioned by everyone from government to Greenpeace – which map how we can decarbonise our energy supply. But all these models make massive assumptions about what is possible. They assume eye-watering amounts of investment, bold government policy, optimistic build rates for new technology, a supportive public and a good dose of luck. The reports are filled with caveats explaining the obstacles: the message is “it’s extremely difficult, but it might just be possible”. Yet politicians ignore the warnings and translate all the caveats, risks and assumptions into a much simpler, politics-free story about the path to a low-carbon future.

And because of the breathless enthusiasm for low-carbon supply, much less thought is given to the demand side. But a reduction in overall demand for energy could be cheaper, and comparatively easier, though by no means easy, to bring about.

So what would actually happen if we got serious about reducing energy demand?

The first step in a new energy politics would be to see energy as a public good, not a private commodity. Government needs to play a role in shaping energy outcomes, in the same way that it shapes health and education outcomes. This means policies and incentives to shape the way that people use energy, both directly and indirectly – for buildings, food, trade and travel, for example. It would need input from all government departments, not just the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

Land-use planning would focus much more on creating carbon-efficient settlements. This is already starting to happen in the US, where many decades of cheap oil and lax planning have resulted in sprawling settlements like Atlanta, at 120 miles wide. Now, the US Smart Growth movement advocates compact towns and walkable neighbourhoods, with “hubs” of retail and employment services close to transport interchanges. In other words, and with considerable irony, they are arguing to recreate the concept of the high street. Yet here in the UK, the current planning reforms are taking us in the opposite direction, toward greater sprawl.

There would be much more of a focus on the energy implications of food. At around 12% of each person’s total greenhouse gas consumption, the energy and carbon implications of agriculture are huge, yet virtually ignored by government policy. Incentives for better land management, and local, seasonal food and drink would make a massive difference – and help rural economies.

Getting serious about energy demand would mean facing up to the realities of international trade, and the embodied energy in goods that we import from overseas. If we factor this in, our carbon emissions are actually rising, not falling – and it’s not doing our balance of payments much good, either.

Together, this would add up to a new politics of energy, which asks the fundamental questions about how and why energy is used, rather than assuming that progress depends on a continued supply of abundant energy. A politics that future-proofs our communities, by preparing them for coming resource constraints. One that doesn’t expect our energy dilemmas can be solved by technical interventions by a small group of experts, but which instead acknowledges that our history has been shaped by energy, and our future will be, too.

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Rebecca is a researcher at Lancaster University and an associate of Green Alliance.