Perhaps, finally, the breakthrough moment of rethinking energy consumption is upon us. At least it’s dawning in Europe, where using less energy, in particular Russian hydrocarbons, now obviously serves geopolitical, energy security, and climate aims. To be sure, energy efficiency and the reduction of energy consumption have long been cornerstones of Europe’s climate-change mitigation strategy. After all, using less checks all sorts of boxes: Emissions decrease; prices drop as demand lessens, energy poverty sinks, overburdened power grids are eased, and fewer renewables are required to decarbonize a smaller energy system.
Energy efficiency is often overlooked because there’s nothing to see. Unlike the opening of wind turbines or power plants, there are no ribbon cuttings for lowering building temperatures. Reducing energy use also requires consumers, be they renters or industrial captains, to modify their behavior—something they do reluctantly even if it promises payoffs. But now experts say that reductions in energy consumption once considered decades away are now being spoken of in terms of years or months.
The benefits of energy efficiency are why the EU has a 33 percent energy reduction target by 2030, and the principle of “energy efficiency first” etched into its decarbonization strategy. Now, there’s movement in the European Parliament to jack up the 2030 target to well over 40 percent. In contrast to the supply side, demand is a lever that can be shifted quickly—if, for example, Western countries embargo Russian energy imports or Putin decides to cut off Europe. Soaring energy prices already have us rethinking energy use, though as a result of necessity and not as a matter of high-impact, long-term strategy.
The logic of an embargo is this: Deny the Russian economy the nearly 1 billion euros a day it accrues from petrochemical exports worldwide, and Putin’s military machinery will sputter to a stop. At the same time, argue climate experts, such a radical fossil fuel detox—in Europe, two-fifths of gas and over a quarter of imported crude oil come from Russia—would prompt a shift from coal, gas, and oil to renewables, thus helping the world hit its climate goals and bring down prices. Dozens of prominent figures, including Luisa Neubauer of Friday for Futures, have called for Europe to stop importing oil, gas, and coal from Russia, calling the Ukraine invasion a “fossil fuel war.” Major think tanks say Europe could pull it off without tanking the economy. The EU is considering an embargo of oil (though not of gas and coal), which would follow import bans by the US and the UK. Greenpeace underscores that the goal must be to wean the global economy off all natural gas, not just the supply from Russia, but that a break from a major producer is a step in the right direction. This is all the more imperative in light of the recent IPCC reports that show the impacts of global warming to be ever more intense, especially for the Global South.
Certainly, going cold turkey on Russian imports is a tempting proposition and, in some form, energy sanctions are viable—though this would not stop Putin’s Ukraine invasion in its tracks. The Russian military runs on Russian oil and domestically produced machinery and commodities. But it would hurt Russia, and making it work means refiguring our everything-all-the-time economy, which climate scientists say we must do anyway to save the planet.
In Europe, experts and think tanks agree on the importance of energy consumption. Confoundingly, the German government hasn’t grasped this concept yet and remains laser-focused on supply. The Green (yes, Green) minister for economy, climate, and energy, Robert Habeck, has been pursuing Persian Gulf autocrats for alternative sources of natural gas and other ways to wean Germany off Russian fuels in “ways that won’t hurt the economy.” “Conservation” and “consumption reduction” are terms that don’t often pass his lips: The Greens don’t want to come off as killjoys who scold Germans to scrimp and economize.
Meanwhile, natural gas is hard to replace at short notice in energy mixes that rely on it for heating and cooling, industrial processes, and power supply flexibility. The natural gas market beyond Russia is largely tapped out; liquefied natural gas requires terminals that have to be built; and green biogas on a large scale needs energy crops that skew agricultural markets at the expense of the Global South.
Germany and the EU now realize that a three- or four-year transition away from Russian energy is doable, and have emergency plans in motion to make it happen ( ultimately, through non-Russian fossil fuel supply and a turbocharged version of the European Green Deal). But they acknowledge that it won’t happen immediately: Shifting from gas to electrical heating will take years, even if accelerated. Wind and solar energy, the backbone of our renewables-based systems of the future, will eventually displace a good chuck of gas’s service, but will take time to develop. (Nuclear takes decades, which is just one reason it is not an option.)
But Habeck and Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, rather than consider addressing demand, balk at the prospect of an immediate stoppage of imports—even just of oil or coal. This, they say, would trigger mass unemployment and economic chaos, and possibly rolling brownouts, industrial stoppages, and supply chain bottlenecks too. Although even Habeck, the older of the two, born in 1969, doesn’t remember the 1973–74 energy crisis, this is what life looked like for three months in Western Europe with: car-free Sundays and four-day workweeks.
But many experts say the reluctant German officials are exaggerating. The Brussels think tank Bruegel argues that if Russian energy inflows stop, Europe (after finding at least some new gas sources) would need to reduce demand by a minimum of 10 to 15 percent a year. “This is possible,” Bruegel concludes. Germany’s Agora Energiewende determined that lowering thermostats by 1.5 degrees Celsius and other easy-to-do efficiency measures could cover a good chunk of this shortfall. Germany’s National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina predicts that a short-term halt in the supply of Russian gas would be manageable for the German economy, though bottlenecks could arise next winter. According to Leopoldina and the Berlin-based Ecologic Institute, the state would have to step in to manage industrial energy demand by prioritizing essential sectors and deprioritizing others. In fact, though the think tanks don’t dare say it, Europe could probably live pretty well with fewer new SUVs, office buildings, and nonessential plastic products.
The kinds of energy-saving measures that could cut hydrocarbon demand by half or more range from long-term circular economy strategies (like those embedded in the EU’s pioneering Circular Economy Action Plan) to immediate measures. Most of them are low- or no-tech, and together they add up. This is the way energy efficiency works, say the experts: Everybody pitches in, and the result is big. “The same low-cost, easy-to-implement measures, like scaling back heating by a degree or two, insulating doors and windows, using less hot water and LED lightening, can be taken by households and businesses alike. Undertaken society- and economy-wide, they can make a huge difference,” said Steffen Joest of the think tank German Energy Agency, which advocates a nationwide campaign to cut energy use in solidarity with Ukraine—and the climate.
Joest says that his agency has been pushing the merits of energy conservation for years, but that even in environmentally friendly circles, including the present German government, uptake has been too slow. Now, he thinks, in government as well as the economy, changes that until recently were thought of in terms of decades are now being thought of as taking only years—or less.
Bruegel argues that energy conservation can be promoted either through regulation or economic incentives. Public and private buildings can be required to reduce heating or encouraged to do so through “saving bonuses” paid on the basis of energy saved.
In the industrial sector, where 70 percent of the fuel used is gas, large volumes can be peeled off, especially in those energy-intensive sectors that also blast voluminous emissions into the atmosphere, such as steel, concrete, chemicals, and plastics. Until now, systems-optimization technology has been underused to shift and lessen industrial energy consumption, despite the fact that experts have sung its praises for years. Stefan Büttner, director of global strategy and impact at the University of Stuttgart Institute for Energy Efficiency in Production, says that German industry could cut energy consumption by a third by using affordable, market-ready innovations such as high-temperature heat pumps and intelligent drive technology, and optimizing energy network systems.
The Circular Economy
In Europe, the circular economy—namely, economic processes that preserve the value of products, materials, and resources—is at the heart of a new industrial policy. The circular economy can preserve the energy embedded in products and materials. Reusing product components can, in some cases, reduce energy demand by up to 80 percent. Ideally, this process starts at the very beginning of a product’s lifecycle: Smart product design and production conserve resources and energy and circumvent waste. Estimates indicate that the EU legislation for energy labels and eco-design—among its most storied environmental initiatives ever—will reap energy savings the equivalent of approximately 230 million metric tons of oil by 2030.
The EU Parliament’s new energy-efficiency proposals envision targets that commit countries to reduce energy consumption by 2 percent a year from 2024. The €800 billion Covid-19 recovery fund could help cover the up-front costs of insulating buildings and making industrial processes less energy-intensive. Dedicated energy-efficiency funds could help poorer households save energy and thus lower utility bills. Also envisioned are including more kinds of public buildings under the mandatory annual renovation rate of 3 percent a year and strengthening the rollout of district heating and cooling in municipalities.
None of the European ideas on the table, however, break with the green-growth mantra at the heart of the European Green Deal or present a truly radical rethinking of the way we consume, produce, travel, and live. Would no-car Sundays and a four-day workweek really damage our living standards—or improve them? Germany, for its part, won’t even impose a speed limit on its autobahns—a no-brainer that would save nearly a billion gallons of fuel and obviate 9 million metric tons of carbon emissions.