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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 sufficiency 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 sufficiency for all.
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TYPE Policy Brief
PUBLISHED 25 August 2022
DOI 10.3389/frsus.2022.940958
Rebecca R. Hernandez,
University of California, Davis,
United States
Joanna Kulczycka,
AGH University of Science and
Technology, Poland
Marie-France Vernier,
ESDES School of Business and
Management, France
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
suciency. Front. Sustain. 3:940958.
doi: 10.3389/frsus.2022.940958
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SDG 7 requires post-growth
energy suciency
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 suciency 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 suciency for all.
ecological economics, energy policy, energy security, energy suciency, just
distribution, planetary boundaries, Sustainable Development Goal 7, sustainable scale
Introduction: SDG 7 and the need for energy
suciency 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”
(p. 4).
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 suciency policy options
and implications
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 suciency 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 suciency
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
energy sufficiency.
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 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;
Spangenberg, 2022).
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 suciency polices for selected goals.
Goal Policy instrument—Sector Measure/Action Instrument type Indicator
Protection from
Marketing ban of climate harmful foods
and drinks—Agri-food
Less consumption of climate
harmful food and drinks
Regulation Emissions of food
and drinks
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
Information TWh
Pre-paid metering—Energy Prepaid metering Regulation TWh
Peer energy comparison—Energy Providing individuals with
comparisons with their peers’
energy use
Information TWh
Energy savings feed-in-tariff—Energy Subsidize energy savings Fiscal TWh
Lighting ban
Reduce overlighting during
Regulation Energy use, TWh
Information about energy savings by
reduced heating
Reduce heating temperatures Information Average C room
Energy Sufficiency Policy Database, available at 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 suciency policies for selected goals.
Goal Policy
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
Protection from
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
service demand
R and D for sufficiency Fund of research for
sufficiency solutions
Research and
Not specified
Re-distribute and reduce paid
work time
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
work week
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 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
suciency-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 suciency 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 suciency as characterized by three goals of ecological economic development: sustainable scale, just distribution, and ecient
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
energy available.
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.
Ecient allocation: Institutions and
measures to allow energy use to meet
basic needs
Following sustainable scale and just distribution, efficient
allocation measures for SDG 7 aim to improve micro-level
Frontiers in Sustainability 08
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
reduced inequity.
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.
Author contributions
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.
Publisher’s note
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.
Frontiers in Sustainability 09
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Frontiers in Sustainability 11
... Highlighting the worldwide energy access gap, Onu [23] discovered that approximately 679 million people across the globe will still lack access to energy by 2030. Furthermore, Burke [24], demonstrated that efficiency alone does not guarantee the achievement of SDG 7. This is due to the "take-back effect," and it is energy sufficiency that ensures meeting mandatory overall economic budget or sufficiency limits on total energy consumption before considering lifestyle adjustments and the deployment of renewable energy sources. ...
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Over the coming decade of energy transition, solar PV will generate billions of dollars in “solar savings” on the electric bills of whomever owns the solar array. Once these savings have paid for the costs of the system, they are “free” and abundant gifts of the sun. What legal, economic, and educational tools do we need to equitably distribute these solar savings as revenue streams governed by and for local communities doing reparative justice work? The Solar Commons Project (SCP) is prototyping tools to own solar assets and benefits as community common wealth trusts. The toolkit includes legal templates and a digital dashboard that provides real time information to all parties of the trust agreement. The dashboard shows the flows of value from the sun’s radiance to kilowatt hours, market-valued solar savings, social wealth trust funds and community impacts. The dashboard is an essential tool of the Solar Commons ownership model. This article describes the dashboard being prototyped by the author for three Solar Commons projects in Arizona and Minnesota. It discusses the new economy vision and the essential components that make this dashboard a tool for local, transparent peer governance of solar energy as a common good.KeywordsCommonsReparative JusticeCommunity Solar
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Climate disruption and biodiversity collapse are but two symptoms of the environmental crisis caused by ever-growing resource consumption. Multiple overshoots of Earth's planetary boundaries have pushed our natural systems close to or even beyond critical tipping points. Effective reduction of resource consumption, in particular fossil fuels, is now an immediate necessity for civilisation to survive and must be reached within less than a decade. Since traditional policies have failed, and the time pressure is extreme, new instruments for immediate reduction of consumption are required. We suggest that rationing of fossil fuel consumption is such a measure, capping the resource input to national economies while permitting trade between them. Nationally, new allocation mechanisms based in justice, resilience, and social sustainability are suggested.
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The United States relies heavily on fossil and nuclear energy to meet its burgeoning electricity generation demands. The incumbent institutional and industrial power dynamics may support a fossil and nuclear energy status quo and have shown signs of carbon lock-in. Government research and development (R&D) funding can either be a help or hinderance to institutional carbon lock-in. This analysis investigates the link between the Department of Energy's historical funding allocations for energy research programs in the fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy sector, and the federal government's tendency to support entrenched, carbon-based energy systems. While the Department of Energy's renewable energy programs have received more funding in recent years, this investment alone is not enough currently to thwart carbon lock-in. Thus, this article recommends suggestions for researchers to advocate for more renewable energy research and development resources through personal, professional, and institutional strategies to spur decarbonization.
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Sufficiency measures are potentially decisive for the decarbonisation of energy systems but rarely considered in energy policy and modelling. Just as efficiency and renewable energies, the diffusion of demand-side solutions to climate change also relies on policy-making. Our extensive literature review of European and national sufficiency policies fills a gap in existing databases. We present almost 300 policy instruments clustered into relevant categories and publish them as "Energy Sufficiency Policy Database". This paper provides a description of the data clustering, the set-up of the database and an analysis of the policy instruments. A key insight is that sufficiency policy includes much more than bans of products or information tools leaving the responsibility to individuals. It is a comprehensive instrument mix of all policy types, not only enabling sufficiency action, but also reducing currently existing barriers. A policy database can serve as a good starting point for policy recommendations and modelling, further research is needed on barriers and demand-reduction potentials of sufficiency policy instruments.
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The making of sustainable economies calls for sufficiency in production and consumption. The discussion, however, lacks a shared understanding on what it means to operationalize sufficiency. In this article, we review and analyze the concept of sufficiency with a focus on its linkages to different economic scales (with a focus on micro- and macroeconomics) and economic actors (particularly consumers and producers). Altogether 307 articles were screened, resulting in a final data set of 94 peer-reviewed articles. In addition to the core assumption of ‘enoughness’, we found three premises describing the concept: (1) complementarity of capitals, (2) social metabolism, and (3) altruism. In the reviewed literature, sufficiency is understood as both an end in itself and a means for bringing consumption and production within ecological limits. By conducting the first systematic literature review on sufficiency, the study explicates a more integrated understanding of sufficiency and highlights the need to treat sufficiency across economic scales and actors. In future research, empirical work should be emphasized to grasp the contextual varieties in the operationalization of sufficiency.
This paper investigates the effectiveness of different energy scenarios for achieving early reductions in global energy-related CO2 emissions on trajectories to zero or near-zero emissions by 2050. To keep global heating below 1.5°C without overshoot by 2050, global CO2 emissions must decline by about half by 2030. To achieve rapid, early emission reductions entails substantially changing recent pre-COVID (2000–2019) observed trends, which comprise increasing total primary energy supply (TPES) and approximately constant fraction of TPES derived from fossil fuels (FF fraction). Scenarios are developed to explore the effects of varying future trends in these variables in the absence of substantial CO2 removal, because relying on the latter is speculative and risky. The principal result is that, to reduce energy-related emissions to at least half the 2019 level by 2030 en route to zero or near-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, either TPES must be reduced to at least half its 2019 value by 2050 or impossibly rapid reductions must be made in the FF fraction of supply, given current technological options. Reduction in energy consumption likely entails economic degrowth in high-income countries, driven by policies that are socioeconomic, cultural and political, in addition to technological. This needs serious consideration and international cooperation. Key policy insights • If global energy consumption grows at the pre-COVID rate, technological change alone cannot halve global CO2 emissions by 2030 and hence cannot keep global heating below 1.5°C by 2050. • In the absence of substantial CO2 removal, policies are needed to reduce global energy consumption and hence foster degrowth in high-income economies. • Policies to drive technological and socioeconomic changes could together cut global energy consumption and thus total primary energy supply and associated emissions by at least 75% by 2050.