TYPE Policy Brief
PUBLISHED 25 August 2022
Rebecca R. Hernandez,
University of California, Davis,
AGH University of Science and
ESDES School of Business and
Matthew J. Burke
This article was submitted to
Quantitative Sustainability Assessment,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Sustainability
RECEIVED 10 May 2022
ACCEPTED 28 July 2022
PUBLISHED 25 August 2022
Burke MJ and Melgar R (2022) SDG 7
requires post-growth energy
suciency. Front. Sustain. 3:940958.
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SDG 7 requires post-growth
Matthew J. Burke1,2,3*and Rigo Melgar2,3
1College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States,
2Gund Institute for Environment, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States, 3Rubenstein
School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States
Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) aims to achieve “energy for all”
by improving energy security for the world’s poor while supporting a global
transition toward low-carbon energy sources. The aim of this policy brief
is to evaluate and propose energy suciency as a feasible policy response
to negative interactions of SDG 7, for climate (SDG 13), the biophysical
environment (SDG 14 and 15), and social equity (SDG 10), when linked to the
pursuit of unending economic growth (SDG 8). Recommendations for SDG 7
target economy-wide absolute and per capita limits in overall energy use to
precede adjustments in technology and behavior, thus shifting from energy
excess for some to energy suciency for all.
ecological economics, energy policy, energy security, energy suciency, just
distribution, planetary boundaries, Sustainable Development Goal 7, sustainable scale
Introduction: SDG 7 and the need for energy
suciency within planetary boundaries
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 is vital for achieving all SDGs yet fails
to break from unsustainable growth dependence. SDG 7 aims to achieve “energy for
all” by improving energy security for the world’s poor and supporting a global energy
transition toward low-carbon energy resources. Energy, deﬁned as the ability to do work,
is an essential input to transform matter in economic processes to provide society with
material well-being. However, SDG 7 disregards consideration of multiple biophysical
and social incompatibilities when coupled with the pursuit of unending economic
growth, per SDG 8, and the associated excess of energy use.
This growth dependence undermines essential life-sustaining SDGs. Many of the
problems that the SDGs aim to address, including the climate and biodiversity crises
(SDGs 13, 14, and 15), are symptoms of uneconomic growth, wherein the social and
environmental costs outweigh its beneﬁts (Daly, 2014; Eisenmenger et al., 2020). Since
socio-economic systems are embedded in the biophysical world of energy and matter,
this growth dependence has increasingly deteriorated the natural sources and sinks of
the biosphere (Melgar-Melgar and Hall, 2020). Fifty years ago, Meadows et al. (1972) had
warned in The Limits to Growth (LtG) that trends of exponential growth could result in a
sudden and uncontrollable decline of population and industrial society. Recent updates
to LtG and related analyses have conﬁrmed that contemporary socio-economic systems
are depleting fossil fuels (Capellán-Pérez et al., 2014), breaching planetary boundaries
(Steﬀen et al., 2015), and reducing opportunities to reconsider conventional patterns
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Burke and Melgar 10.3389/frsus.2022.940958
of development (Turner, 2008, 2012; Meadows and Randers,
2012; Herrington, 2020). Despite serving as a poor proxy for
human well-being, economic growth is nevertheless considered
a panacea for multiple social and ecological problems, as
reﬂected in the “green growth” framing of the SDGs (Hickel,
Unsustainable fossil-fueled growth also enables energy
excess and inequality. SDG 7 essentially aims to increase access
and technology, while enabling breaches of ecological limits
and leaving unchecked SDG 10 to reduce inequality (Millward-
Hopkins et al., 2020). The targets within SDG 7 overwhelmingly
favor technological ﬁxes, including energy eﬃciency and
renewable energy, while assuming unprecedented rates of
decoupling of economic growth from energy consumption
(Melgar and Burke, 2021). SDG 7 does not consider the fossil-
fuel inputs needed to develop renewable technologies, nor the
rebound eﬀects that oﬀset eﬃciency improvements. SDG 7 also
fails to recognize that the world’s most aﬄuent use energy in
excess of well-being, thus driving unsustainable conditions that
undermine well-being for all (Otto et al., 2019; Oswald et al.,
2020; Wiedmann et al., 2020; Bruckner et al., 2022). As recently
noted, “absolute reductions of matter-energy throughput are
an inevitable part of solving the socio-ecological crisis and will
ﬁrst and foremost require aﬄuent economies to make radical
consumption and production changes” (Jungell-Michelsson and
Heikkurinen, 2022, p. 8).
Energy suﬃciency is needed to support human well-being
while avoiding energy excess. This brief advances policies for
energy suﬃciency, meaning “a state in which people’s basic
needs for energy services are met equitably and ecological
limits are respected” (Darby and Fawcett, 2018, p. 8). As with
the concept of suﬃciency more generally, energy suﬃciency
proposes a maximum level of consumption, here in terms
of energy use, that is environmentally sustainable (Sandberg,
2021), combined with distributional justice to ensure everyone
has fair access to energy to meet their needs (Potocnik et al.,
2018). Given vast global inequities, this deﬁnition implies a
need to achieve absolute reductions in total energy use to
support a decent quality of life for humanity. The key objectives
of energy suﬃciency include respecting planetary limits and
ensuring fair use of energy to meet human needs. Energy
suﬃciency involves both quantitative assessments of resource
availability and depletion rates and qualitative judgements
on acceptable levels of energy services (Darby and Fawcett,
2018). As with ecological economics, suﬃciency policies directly
address both limits and fairness, setting energy suﬃciency
apart from energy eﬃciency and renewable energy. Energy
suﬃciency shifts emphasis of SDG 7 from technical dimensions
to the priority aim of achieving human well-being within limits
(Thomas et al., 2015), for as Fuchs et al. (2021) explain, “(i)n
an increasingly inequitable and ecologically full world, living
well within limits thus becomes the core challenge of our time”
Here we turn to that challenge by evaluating the options
for energy suﬃciency in terms of the upper bounds and just
distribution of energy use. Previous research recognizes the
relationships between energy use and human well-being that
undergird this policy brief (Figure 1). Increasing levels of energy
use demonstrate a point of saturation: while lower-to-medium
levels of energy access are needed to sustain a high quality of
life, this relationship weakens with increasing levels of energy
use (Steinberger and Roberts, 2010; Burke, 2020). Recent studies
similarly show that high degrees of human development are
achievable with less energy consumption per capita than that of
aﬄuent societies, while increasing economic growth and income
per capita beyond a threshold does not improve well-being and
can degrade quality of life (Max-Neef, 1995; Niccolucci et al.,
2007; Easterlin et al., 2010; Lawn and Clarke, 2010; Collste et al.,
2021). These thresholds of aﬄuence show that it is imperative
to focus on qualitative rather than quantitative improvements to
satisfy well-being while transitioning to a right-sized economy.
Additional modeling of energy scenarios suggests that, lacking
highly speculative substantial CO2removal, policies are needed
to reduce global energy consumption and enable degrowth
among high-income economies (Diesendorf, 2022). There is a
need, therefore, for comprehensive policies directly targeting the
impacts of consumption of the world’s wealthiest people and
nations (Potocnik et al., 2018; Otto et al., 2019).
This policy brief therefore aims to assess and propose
energy suﬃciency as a feasible and necessary policy response
to negative interactions of SDG 7 when linked to the pursuit
of unending economic growth. Due to the increasing yet often
underacknowledged proliferation of policy options for energy
suﬃciency over the last two decades (see for example Toulouse
et al., 2019; Gynther, 2021; Best et al., 2022; Eceee, 2022),
this short report provides a timely and practical evaluation
and prioritization of these diverse options from an ecological
economic framework. Focusing SDG 7 on energy suﬃciency
implies a transformation of socio-economic systems toward
post-growth ecological economic development, prioritizing
quality of life within limits over unsustainable economic growth
(Millward-Hopkins et al., 2020; Vogel et al., 2021), and involving
a shift toward qualitative goals and outcomes (O’Neill et al.,
2018; Fanning et al., 2020). Given that reductions of energy use
are likely inevitable, focusing on limits as soon as possible will
enable a better actions and responses (Potocnik et al., 2018).
Thus, SDG 7 must directly address and redistribute excessive
energy use among aﬄuent people and societies; from energy
excess to energy suﬃciency for all.
Energy suciency policy options
This section summarizes policy options for a comprehensive
“suﬃciency ﬁrst” strategy (O’Neill et al., 2018; Best et al., 2022)
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Human Development Index as related to energy use (gigajoules) per capita. Authors. Data sources: UNDP HDI and BP Statistical Review of World
as consistent with ecological economics prioritizing energy
suﬃciency within SDG 7 before energy eﬃciency and renewable
energy. As energy suﬃciency, like suﬃciency more broadly,
continues to gain interest among researchers and policy makers,
it requires clariﬁcation regarding which of the varied and
sometimes contradictory approaches to energy suﬃciency is
being proposed in a given case (Jørgensen et al., 2022; Jungell-
Michelsson and Heikkurinen, 2022). Targeting interactions
among SDGs, here we prioritize energy suﬃciency as equitably
limiting direct impacts of macro-scale energy use. Failing such
an approach, business as usual leads to a distinctly undesirable
and inequitable mode of imposing limits, as costs associated
with acquisition and use of fossil fuels increase with depletion
(Capellán-Pérez et al., 2014; Laherrère et al., 2022), an option
emphatically rejected here. Several approaches to policy for
energy suﬃciency are reviewed, including targeting changes
in behavior, in technologies, and in direct impacts. Following
the goals of ecological economics, the section ties together
combinations of policies for capping impact while achieving
distributional fairness (Daly, 1992).
Energy suciency ﬁrst
Suﬃciency ﬁrst gives priority to energy suﬃciency within
SDG 7. Technical measures of energy eﬃciency and renewable
energy, while important, do not directly address planetary limits
and human needs. Eﬃciency is subject to a rebound eﬀect and
fails to adequately decouple from material and fossil energy
inputs and outputs. As Daly (2002) underscores, frugality leads
to eﬃciency, but eﬃciency cannot ensure frugality. Additionally,
transitioning to renewable systems remains highly dependent
upon fossil fuels, while reducing surplus energy available for
ongoing re-investment and maintenance (Sers and Victor, 2018;
Capellán-Pérez et al., 2019). In short, eﬃciency and renewables
aim to change how society meets its goal of economic growth,
while suﬃciency changes the goal itself oﬀering greater leverage
for change toward real sustainability (Meadows et al., 1972;
Gladkykh et al., 2018). Especially for high-consuming societies,
this social, cultural, and political framework of suﬃciency,
organized around limits and needs, must precede eﬀorts to
advance energy technologies (Burke, 2020). The issues of
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ecological sustainability and fair distribution prevail over those
of technical and economic eﬃciency (Daly, 1992), thus there is a
need for policies that place energy suﬃciency ﬁrst.
Impact measures for suciency
Energy suﬃciency measures broadly target changes in
either behavior, technology, or biophysical impact. Measures
focusing on behavior include reducing car travel and work
time, teleworking, downshifting consumption, cleaning and
eating diﬀerently, consuming less meat, limiting dwelling area,
and increasing use of public transport, biking, and walking
(Thomas et al., 2019; Sandberg, 2021; Best et al., 2022).
Technical suﬃciency measures include redeveloping existing
buildings, improving community design, constructing passive
heating and cooling systems, and adopting production caps and
standards for durability, reparability, and reusability (Cullen
et al., 2011; Thomas et al., 2019; Sandberg, 2021; Best et al.,
2022). Measures aimed at changing behaviors and technologies,
while potentially valuable within a comprehensive energy
suﬃciency strategy, are also vulnerable to rebounds in energy
use, which would render them partially or entirely ineﬀective in
terms of biophysical impacts, and increasingly cost-ineﬀective
as compared to measures targeting impact directly (Alcott,
2010; Potocnik et al., 2018). More generally, measures such
as shifting modes of energy use and increasing sharing
practices and product longevity are needed in combination
with absolute reductions (Sandberg, 2021; Bocken et al.,
2022), yet none but absolute reductions necessarily enable the
desired corresponding improvements to climate and biophysical
environment. Impact measures are therefore central to securing
Instruments targeting impacts vary across sectors (Zell-
Ziegler et al., 2021; Best et al., 2022).Tables 1, 2 summarize
relevant sectoral and cross-sectoral suﬃciency policy options for
directly reducing high levels of energy use as selected from the
nearly 300 suﬃciency policies of the Energy Suﬃciency Policy
Database https://energysuﬃciency.de/en/policy-database-e as
organized by instrument type, policy objective, description, and
indicator These tables demonstrate the increasing feasibility of
energy suﬃciency as well as the diversity of impact-focused
suﬃciency policies in practice. Such measures can better secure
an outcome of genuine sustainability, while behavioral and
technical instruments can follow from and work in combination
with impact measures (Alcott, 2010; Sorrell et al., 2020).
Quantiﬁable limits to energy use
Only absolute limits to energy and fossil fuel use can make
certain that the aspirations of SDG 7 are achieved. Ensuring
energy use limits typically involves either taxation or prohibition
(Alcott, 2010; Kiss, 2018). While both may achieve the same
end, taxation works indirectly through price mechanisms, while
prohibition directly regulates and caps the quantity of energy
use (Alcott, 2010). These caps may target reductions in average
and/or high-end use (Fawcett and Darby, 2019). The debate
concerns not their eﬀectiveness but rather their economic costs
(Alcott, 2010). The advantage of using caps is in structuring their
environmental eﬀectiveness within the instruments, rather than
aiming for the right price for a desired level of consumption.
Raising prices is typically regressive as those with lower incomes
must pay a higher proportion of their income (Kiss, 2018).
Research as well as recent experience further demonstrates that
increasing energy prices remains politically untenable.
Caps instead behave progressively while rewarding lower
use. The adoption of a cap on energy use requires that energy
not be used beyond an established amount over a certain period
of time, involving biophysical knowledge combined with social
and political decisions (Potocnik et al., 2018). Caps typically
result in lower levels of use than taxes due to resistance
to adequate tax increases. Caps may require more upfront
costs, but over time can improve cost eﬃciencies as people
ﬁnd varied means to adjust to the limit (Alcott, 2010; Kiss,
2018). A further advantage is their conceptual and regulatory
simplicity (Potocnik et al., 2018), while oﬀering more choices
and allowing ﬂexible responses to emerge within the caps as
appropriate to speciﬁc contexts, locations, and scales. These
characteristics may help generate greater political acceptance
if implemented fairly, transparently, and with the necessary
attention to procedures. Within the limit, people will respond
with innumerable behavioral and technological adjustments.
The practical barriers involved with monitoring such a diversity
of end uses, as well as the signiﬁcantly fewer number of points
of entry of energy ﬂows into an economy, suggest a more
eﬀective approach in monitoring energy caps at points of origin
or import of energy sources (Alcott, 2010; Potocnik et al., 2018;
Fair outcomes within limits
A cap then raises profound distributional questions per the
intention to reduce inequality—how shall an essential resource
like energy be fairly distributed to achieve suﬃciency at both
lower and higher levels of use? From an ecological economic
perspective, a quantiﬁable cap requires complementary
measures. Restrictions have long been used in combination with
mechanisms such as rationing, auctions, or tradable quotas.
The continued overreliance on price-based rationing should be
avoided, however, as the eﬀect is to favor those with the means
to pay, enabling severe distributional inequities while failing to
meet basic needs (Cox, 2013). Alternatively, non-price rationing
has been used repeatedly in various forms to equitably distribute
everything from energy, food, and water to medical supplies
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TABLE 1 Examples of sectoral energy suciency polices for selected goals.
Goal Policy instrument—Sector Measure/Action Instrument type Indicator
Marketing ban of climate harmful foods
Less consumption of climate
harmful food and drinks
Regulation Emissions of food
Marketing ban—Industry/production Marketing ban for energy-
and resources intensive
products in the appliances
sector (active products)
Regulation Energy, resource
Reduce energy consumption Information campaigns—Energy Information campaigns,
energy audits, and
Pre-paid metering—Energy Prepaid metering Regulation TWh
Peer energy comparison—Energy Providing individuals with
comparisons with their peers’
Energy savings feed-in-tariﬀ—Energy Subsidize energy savings Fiscal TWh
Reduce overlighting during
Regulation Energy use, TWh
Information about energy savings by
Reduce heating temperatures Information Average ◦C room
Energy Suﬃciency Policy Database, available at https://energysuﬃciency.de/en/policy-database- e.
and care, driving time, clothing, appliances, luxury goods, and
so on (Cox, 2013). Mechanisms include rationing by queuing,
time of use, lottery, triage, and direct quantity.
For energy, relevant practices such as those proposed in the
EU and UK typically distribute allotments among individual
users on a per capita basis (Kiss, 2018). For example, the
European Energy Budget scheme aims for an absolute reduction
of energy use at the EU level, progressively reducing each year
in line with emissions targets, while guaranteeing fair share of
energy access through distribution of energy units (Potocnik
et al., 2018). As proposed for the UK, Tradable Energy Quotas
(TEQs) per Fleming (2006) provide each adult with an equal,
free allotment of TEQ units. Governments and industry bid
for units through weekly tenders. Overall annual budgets are
reduced year-to-year and may be determined by independent
energy policy committees or through formal political processes.
Buying energy reduces the units in an individual’s TEQ account.
Transactions are automated using credit and/or debit cards
with accounts topped oﬀ in line with the overall cap. The unit
equivalent can be adjusted based on fuel type or energy source.
To initiate, a year’s supply of TEQs is issued and oﬀered as
weekly apportionments. People using less than their allotment
of units can sell their surplus, while those using more can
buy them (Potocnik et al., 2018). This equitable distribution
is expected to lower household energy use and energy costs
and reward people who use less energy (Kiss, 2018). Proceeds
can provide stable funding for energy eﬃciency and renewable
energy investments, for example, using a Transition Fund, which
would also support research and development, provide interest
free loans, and facilitate investments (Potocnik et al., 2018).
Progressive rate structures can provide additional monetary
incentives for lower use, with steeply increasing rates above
certain levels. Operating costs for such a system of distributional
allotments can be covered by a small (<1) percentage of each
transaction (Kiss, 2018). Such approaches diﬀer from market-
based instruments typically allocated to the highest bidder. Here,
the cap incorporates socially sanctioned market mechanisms
only after free and equitable distribution, then allocating across
speciﬁc end uses through individual decisions.
Fair procedures within limits
Realizing a cap on energy use requires robust political
procedures and participatory mechanisms to determine the level
of energy provisioning necessary for a decent human quality of
life (Vogel et al., 2021).Fuchs et al. (2021) propose deliberative
processes to design and implement consumption corridors.
Others similarly propose deliberative forums as informed by
ecological limits to allow people to determine appropriate levels
of suﬃciency (Heindl and Kanschik, 2016). These processes
must involve broad representation in terms of gender, race,
education, income, age, etc., and aim to legitimate and normalize
upper and lower bounds of consumption (Fuchs et al., 2021).
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TABLE 2 Examples of cross-sectoral energy suciency policies for selected goals.
Measure/Action Instrument type Indicator
Limit luxury consumption Set upper income limit (by taxation) Increase of the top tax rate to
100% for income above 20
times the minimum wage
Economic Not speciﬁed
Restrict online marketing Regulation of online
Regulation Number of
Raise knowledge about
climate and suﬃciency
Climate-related curricula Information in education Education Not speciﬁed
Information campaign for a low-carbon
Sensibilization of citizens Information Reduced energy
R and D for suﬃciency Fund of research for
Re-distribute and reduce paid
Caps on working hours Legal and tariﬀ agreements to
set caps on working hours
Regulation Not speciﬁed
Four-day work week Agree with unions and
companies on a four-day
Other Not speciﬁed
Reduce energy consumption Informational measures on energy
saving measures for consumers
Promotion of energy savings Information kWh consumed
Progressive electricity tariﬀs Incentivize end-use savings Economic kWh electricity
Energy Suﬃciency Policy Database, available at https://energysuﬃciency.de/en/policy-database- e.
This deliberative approach to energy suﬃciency operationalizes
diverse social, cultural, and ethical considerations. The key
outcome involves the diﬀerentiation of needs from wants,
a distinction often debated, yet commonly recognized to
exist (Darby and Fawcett, 2018; Millward-Hopkins et al.,
Workable methods are available to communities and nations
for distinguishing needs from wants (Fawcett and Darby,
2019), while research funding can better support processes for
democratic acceptance of caps (Potocnik et al., 2018).Fuchs
et al. (2021) suggest a deliberative process in three stages:
ﬁrstly, centering on the question of problem perception and
visions about the good life; secondly, making the connections
between human needs and available resources, in this case
energy sources and their services and alternatives; and lastly,
determining how best to implement, evaluate, and adjust limits
over time. Such a process would require coordination across
multiple levels involving not only planners and municipal
actors, but also environmental and citizen organizations, those
promoting alternative economies, and activist human rights
groups (Fuchs et al., 2021).Fawcett and Darby (2019) point to
experience with a Minimum Income Standard as a functioning
method to separate needs from wants at national levels,
showing that consensus can be reached for speciﬁc contexts.
These methods record public discussion involving lists of
agreed necessities as well as their rationale for inclusion, an
important aspect of maintaining suﬃciency-based societies. Cox
(2013) ﬁnds numerous historical cases of rationing that readily
diﬀerentiate luxuries from basic needs. Additional processes
include publication of consumption data, public surveys, and
public dialogues to collectively determine what constitutes
agreed necessities as opposed to luxuries and waste. These
processes help people identify the point at which energy
use exceeds basic needs, becoming luxury use and wasteful
consumption. The approach suggested here would focus ﬁrst
on high-income, wealthy nations and populations of the world,
as a key element of planned economic contraction (Alexander,
Energy use caps require periodic updates as people learn
to satisfy needs in less energy-intensive ways, a necessary
condition for meeting basic human needs within planetary
limits (O’Neill et al., 2018). This is not to diminish the
challenge of social acceptance as non-voluntary or mutually
agreed upon limits confront values of liberal societies (Alcott,
2010; Heindl and Kanschik, 2016), especially those so encultured
in consumerism (Gossen et al., 2019). Rather, it underscores
the democratic necessity for maintaining energy suﬃciency
over time (Fuchs et al., 2021). Fairness in both distributional
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outcomes and democratic procedures are absolutely essential to
the implementation of quantiﬁable limits to energy use.
Integrating limits and needs
Energy suﬃciency thus provides an ecological economic
approach to integrating limits and needs for SDG 7. Recent
studies demonstrate that suﬃciency is achievable at a fraction of
current levels of energy use among aﬄuent countries, requiring
fundamentally diﬀerent ways to satisfy human needs using
less energy (Millward-Hopkins et al., 2020; Vogel et al., 2021).
The growing body of energy suﬃciency research provides a
starting point for estimations of maximum per capita energy
use thresholds at the societal level based on priority measures
of well-being (Burke, 2020). Additionally, deliberative processes
can reduce the pressure to overconsume associated with unequal
relative aﬄuence, address the need to act collectively, and
redirect energy use toward priority activities including health
care and food production. Actions are necessary to reshape
consumer culture, as a key barrier to suﬃciency (Sandberg,
2021), including public information and marketing as during
past periods of reduced resource availability (Cox, 2013),
and alternative suﬃciency-based marketing and educational
campaigns, showing that caps are necessary, that they work,
that allotments will be distributed justly, and that there are
many ways to meet basic needs with fewer energy and material
throughputs (Potocnik et al., 2018; Gossen et al., 2019). A
comprehensive set of suﬃciency policies would also identify and
prioritize suﬃciency actions, reduce barriers to implementation,
and develop an integrated strategy (Thomas et al., 2019),
including combined implementation of multiple eco-social
policies (e.g., maximum income, universal basic services, debt-
free currency, work-time reductions) to reduce broader systemic
instabilities associated with decreasing energy inputs (Potocnik
et al., 2018; Fitzpatrick et al., 2022).
As people engage more regularly in processes for energy
suﬃciency, these policies in turn transform and reinforce
values, creating a common motivation and sense of shared
involvement for reducing demand and living within the caps
(Kiss, 2018; Fawcett and Darby, 2019). These actions then create
the conditions to leverage non-monetary incentives associated
with social comparisons and group norms. While the focus here
has been on the macro-scale, emphasizing measures of energy
use or consumption, it is important again to recognize that the
actual social practices of energy suﬃciency, including especially
micro-level behavioral change and technological adoption as
well as changes in production and business models (Bocken
et al., 2022; Jungell-Michelsson and Heikkurinen, 2022), will
proliferate and follow from these broader eﬀorts to establish fair
caps. Moreover, suﬃciency does not necessarily require such
severe levels of sacriﬁce that opponents often claim—models
suggest more materially generous levels of consumption than
is often assumed (Millward-Hopkins et al., 2020), while greater
equity is understood to enable better outcomes for all. Likewise,
suﬃciency does not depend upon authoritarian rule, rather
stronger democratic institutions are crucial not only to uphold
commitments of ecological economics (Spash, 2012), but also
to reduce the corruption and inequities that undermine respect
for limits. Lived experience can thereby increase legitimacy for
suﬃciency-based societies and provide a basis for the necessary
social and political framework for energy suﬃciency (Princen,
Actionable recommendations for
suciency-based SDG 7
Advancing suﬃciency requires action at many levels. Here
we recommend actions for energy suﬃciency as relevant to
those entities most involved with structuring and implementing
SDG 7, including the United Nations Department of Economic
and Social Aﬀairs and related entities coordinating national
and sub-national commitments. To achieve energy suﬃciency
within planetary boundaries, we organize our recommendations
around the three goals of ecological economic development
(Melgar and Burke, 2021). These goals integrate sustainable scale
of energy systems with just distribution and eﬃcient allocation
of energy resources and services (Figure 2), as suﬃciency policies
are most eﬀective and advantageous as an integrated policy
framework rather than as individual measures (Best et al., 2022).
Following Table 1, indicators are also proposed for each of these
three goals. Energy caps and allotments would precede and
be implemented in coordination with additional systemic eco-
social policies to minimize socio-economic instability (Potocnik
et al., 2018).
Sustainable scale: Energy suciency caps
within planetary limits
Global energy use now exceeds a sustainable scale. Energy
suﬃciency for SDG 7 would therefore prioritize adoption
of statutory economy-wide budgets or suﬃciency caps for
overall annual energy use, prior to behavioral and technological
measures including eﬃciency and renewable energy. This
approach to SDG 7 breaks sharply from the assumption of
unending growth of SDG 8 and therefore aims to reduce a
key driver of negative impacts on SDGs 13, 14, and 15. The
prioritization of suﬃciency within SDG 7 also breaks from
the conventional focus on technologies, business models, and
the like—such approaches would follow from rather than lead
energy suﬃciency as proposed here. Suﬃciency caps may be
determined independently through scientiﬁc consensus based
on the energy that can be generated and used within biophysical
thresholds. Indicators for a suﬃciency cap are best measured
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Energy suciency as characterized by three goals of ecological economic development: sustainable scale, just distribution, and ecient
allocation of energy resources.
quantitatively in units such as joules, ideally as useful energy
(i.e., energy services) rather than primary or ﬁnal energy as
data allow. Speciﬁc suﬃciency caps will be monitored at point
of origin or import and reduced and adjusted periodically in
reference to ecological criteria and the quantity of low-carbon
Just distribution: Per capita allotments of
energy for living well
Energy use remains highly unequal worldwide and within
nations, undermining eﬀorts to address inequality in SDG
10. Following suﬃciency caps, a just distribution of energy
for SDG 7 would involve adoption of per capita maximum
energy use standards (gigajoules per capita per year) beginning
with high-income nations by 2030, in combination with
minimum levels necessary to secure basic energy needs for
the world’s poor. Energy use standards would involve non-
market distribution of allotments of energy units or services
per person monitored at points of origin or import. Just
distribution would also involve limits to levels of use beyond
need, progressive disincentives for elevated levels of use, and
adjustments for historical inequities. A fair distribution of per
capita units of energy use serves to reward marginalized people
and under-consumers while reducing household energy costs.
To further improve equity per SDG 10, revenues from sales
at point of origin or import/export should be reinvested to
reduce energy burdens among low-income users, prioritizing
funding and support services to disadvantaged energy users
with higher dependence. Additionally, democratic processes can
be used to establish speciﬁc per person energy use standards
and allotments. Such processes would aim to diﬀerentiate needs
from wants through social consensus to identify points at which
energy use exceeds basic needs and becomes luxury and wasteful
use. Governing bodies shall provide information, education, and
resources necessary to support deliberative processes, including
signiﬁcantly increased funding for research on democratic
processes for determining and accepting caps, identifying needs,
and distributing allotments.
Ecient allocation: Institutions and
measures to allow energy use to meet
Following sustainable scale and just distribution, eﬃcient
allocation measures for SDG 7 aim to improve micro-level
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Burke and Melgar 10.3389/frsus.2022.940958
decisions according to local context. As agents of national
and subnational commitments, energy service providers shall
be authorized or established to identify mechanisms and
criteria for allocating energy as a non-market public good,
using quotas, for example. Experimentation and pilot programs
for use of markets for trading energy units (e.g., Tradable
Energy Quotas) could also be implemented. Enabling trade
of energy units may allow people to choose among options
including buying or selling surplus quotas, investing in energy
reduction technologies, or changing behaviors and patterns
of use. To measure and monitor eﬃcient allocation more
holistically, for example, in evaluating technological investment
options, governing bodies should adopt and monitor net
energy ratios including energy return on energy investment
(EROI) and embodied energy footprint across all sectors.
Commitments to SDG 7 must ensure substantial investments in
research and development and knowledge sharing to monitor
and improve net energy (Robertson, 2022). Following caps,
overall cost-eﬀectiveness of consumer and producer decisions
should be monitored for improvements, as rebound eﬀects are
avoided and as consumers and producers make adjustments
in behavior and technology (Alcott, 2010). The challenge of
consumerism must also be addressed directly, as these micro-
adjustments would beneﬁt from cultural narratives of “enough”
that should be supported through public information and
marketing, restrictions on advertising and luxury consumption,
suﬃciency-based business models, and increased emphasis on
genuine well-being rather than accumulation, a cultural shift
made signiﬁcantly more attainable under conditions of vastly
This policy brief proposes suﬃciency ﬁrst for the revision
of SDG 7 in support of beneﬁcial interactions for climate,
the biophysical environment, and social equity, and greater
well-being for all. To have any hope of achieving the
SDGs, a fundamental shift in consumption patterns and
redistribution of wealth and resources are required, in addition
to increasing the overall availability of modern sustainable
energy services (Melgar and Burke, 2021). In the context of
increasing ecological overshoot and extreme inequality, post-
growth energy suﬃciency must precede technical measures of
eﬃciency and renewable energy among high-income nations.
SDG 7 presently lacks the mechanisms needed to equitably limit
energy use despite witnessing levels far beyond those needed to
achieve a good life. Using an ecological economic framework,
this brief responds to this increasingly harmful omission by
proposing actions to establish an overall absolute cap, fairly
determine and distribute energy allotments, and enable eﬃcient
allocation of essential energy services based on local context
and monitoring. Failure to implement suﬃciency measures may
again put societies in a situation of having to reduce energy use
in much less desirable and considered ways, with little attention
to genuine needs and fairness of use. This comprehensive set
of energy suﬃciency policies can better ensure the crucial
reduction of biophysical impact of energy use while meeting
basic human needs, enabling a broader cultural shift from
uneconomic growth to suﬃciency.
Both authors listed have made a substantial, direct, and
intellectual contribution to the work and approved it for
This research was supported by the Leadership for the
Ecozoic Project, the Gund Institute for Environment, the
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources,
and the Department of Community Development and Applied
Economics at the University of Vermont.
We acknowledge those who have been working arduously to
develop and implement ecological economics and the concept
of suﬃciency to promote a mutually-enhancing relationship
between humans and the rest of nature.
Conﬂict of interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or ﬁnancial relationships that could
be construed as a potential conﬂict of interest.
All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the
authors and do not necessarily represent those of their aﬃliated
organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the
reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or
claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed
or endorsed by the publisher.
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