Cutting energy demand must be part of a Green New Deal
by Livvy Hanks
When you think of the transition to a green economy, probably the first thing that comes to mind is renewable energy. In 2022, 40% of the UK’s electricity came from renewable sources – up from 2.2% in 2000. That’s a real success story, but progress is slowing. It’s vital we scale up that capacity, fast.
However, no amount of solar, wind and tidal power will save us if we fail to phase out oil and gas at the speed required – and if we miss the opportunity to rethink our current exploitative economic system.
Why demand reduction makes sense
To put us on the path to a future where we can thrive, we need to address the way we produce, distribute and consume resources: we need a Green New Deal that rewrites the rules of the economy to prioritise meeting people’s needs while respecting the rest of the living world.
To achieve that, we must reduce our demand for energy. This makes good sense economically and environmentally – and it can improve our lives too. Research by the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) has found that the UK could halve its energy consumption without a negative impact on quality of life – and that many of the required energy-saving measures would be good for our health.
CREDS’ report ‘The role of energy demand reduction in achieving net-zero in the UK’ notes that without demand reduction, the green transition will be much more expensive, put far more pressure on the electricity grid, and leave us gambling on unproven carbon capture technologies. Without a significant lowering of demand, says the report, the electricity system will need to grow to four times its current size – an enormously expensive undertaking. Yet current policies would only reduce demand by a paltry 5% by 2050.
Amending the Energy Bill
The report’s call for an Energy Demand Reduction Delivery Plan has been picked up by Green New Deal Group member Caroline Lucas MP, who has tabled an amendment to the government’s Energy Bill calling for such a plan. Despite the government’s claims that it is all about ensuring energy security, the Bill as it currently stands has virtually nothing to say about demand, instead focusing only on supply. Caroline Lucas’s amendment would require the government to come up with a plan to cut demand, with targets for aviation, shipping, surface transport, manufacturing and construction, buildings and agriculture – looking at the role of societal changes as well as improved energy efficiency technologies.
The CREDS report suggests that those changes would need to include more plant-based diets, more investment in street design, public transport and active travel to reduce car dependency (with electric vehicles and car-sharing for journeys where a car is needed), and a mass rollout of home insulation and heat pumps to cut down on wasted energy in the home. All these are essential elements of a Green New Deal, and all come with significant health benefits.
The high cost of cheap energy
Financial cost is not the only barrier to an imagined future where we simply switch to renewable power while maintaining current energy demand. The UK’s access to ‘cheap’ fossil fuel energy has come at a high cost for communities where those fuels are extracted, both here and in the global South, with mining operations devastating habitats and causing ill-health. Similar issues are already arising around the world as demand increases for lithium and cobalt for batteries and the rare earth elements used in wind turbines. Demand reduction is essential if we are to strike a balance between the urgent need to scale up these technologies and the need to protect and restore ecosystems – and where mining takes place, it must be local communities who make the decisions and reap the economic benefits.
Redesigning our economy
This brings us back to the need to rethink the purpose of our economy and who benefits from it. A Green New Deal rooted in justice must be based on meeting need. This requires us to challenge the current capitalist model, which demands an ever-growing list of consumer ‘needs’ in order to support the endless expansion of production. We have been conditioned to believe that more is always better, and this belief underlies the fear and hostility which sometimes meets talk of demand reduction. But producing heat so it can go straight out through the windows – the fate of a shocking amount of energy in the UK thanks to our leaky housing stock – is not a useful or desirable activity, unless your goal is to expand production for the sake of profit.
Any Green New Deal proposal treads a difficult path here. The challenges of the green transition in the UK and elsewhere – scaling up renewable energy, insulation, public transport infrastructure – will result in an expansion of economic activity in those areas. We therefore have a responsibility to rapidly bring down our consumption in other areas – those that are harmful or not useful – so that we do not rob the global South of even more of the carbon budget and the raw materials it needs. While Green New Dealers and ecomodernists share an enthusiasm for offering a positive vision of where climate action can lead us, this is where the two schools of thought diverge sharply: the acknowledgement of global responsibility and planetary limits is what differentiates a real GND from ecomodernist fantasies of universal flying taxis.
We can build an economy that meets the needs of all – but that means putting redistribution ahead of growth, and making sure our understanding of ‘all’ does not stop at national borders. For security, for fairness, for better health, for the chance of a liveable future, we must get serious about energy demand.
Livvy Hanks is Parliamentary Coordinator for the Green New Deal Group.