For the first time in the UN agency’s 34-year history, yesterday’s massive report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) introduces the language of “demand-side” action to the field of climate mitigation, with potential to reduce emissions by 40 to 70% in the places where people live, work, learn, and play.
“Rapid and deep changes in demand make it easier for every sector to reduce GHG emissions in the short and medium term,” the report declares in its chapter on demand, services, and social aspects of mitigation. Those changes begin with understanding that “new ways of providing services can help avoid, shift, and improve final service demand.”
That’s because the households, businesses, industries, and organizations that are the end users of energy and other resources aren’t measuring what they need in kilowatts of electricity or kilograms of goods. “To enhance well-being, people demand services and not primary energy and physical resources per se,” the IPCC authors write. “Focusing on demand for services and the different social and political roles people play broadens the participation in climate action.”
With that shift in focus, the report says demand-side strategies across all sectors of the economy could reduce emissions by up to 5.7 billion tonnes in buildings, eight gigatonnes in food demand, 6.5 Gt in land transport, and 5.2 Gt in industry, with specific actions divided into three categories.
“The greatest Avoid potential comes from reducing long-haul aviation and providing short-distance low-carbon urban infrastructures,” the report says. “The greatest Shift potential would come from switching to plant-based diets. The greatest Improve potential comes from within the building sector, and in particular increased use of energy-efficient end-use technologies and passive housing.”
Out of 60 actions that could reduce individual consumption, the opening passages of the chapter focus on walking and biking, electric mobility, reducing air travel, reducing space cooling, reducing appliance use, transit, and a shift towards plant-based diets.
A high-efficiency, low-demand path to reducing emissions can deliver decent living standards and well-being for all, the authors add, “providing better services with less energy and resource input.” But while demand-side change is usually loaded solely on consumers’ shoulders, the IPCC points to the need for structural change, as well.
“Demand-side transitions involve interacting and sometimes antagonistic processes on the behavioural, socio-cultural, institutional, business, and technological dimensions,” the report says. “Individual or sectoral level change may be stymied by reinforcing social, infrastructural, and cultural lock-ins.”
However, “coordinating the way choices are presented to end users and planners, physical infrastructures, new technologies, and related business models can rapidly realize system-level change.”
The report connects those changes to some of the carbon reduction technologies that have been quickest to scale up, with stunning cost reductions as high as 85% between 2010 and 2019.
“Granular technologies and decentralized energy end use, characterised by modularity, small unit sizes, and small unit costs, diffuse faster into markets, and are associated with faster technological learning benefits, greater efficiency, more opportunities to escape technological lock-in, and greater employment,” the authors write. “Examples include solar photovoltaic systems, batteries, and thermal heat pumps.”
But that’s not to take the onus off the groups in society that account for the highest per capita emissions, and have the greatest capacity to do something about it. “Wealthy individuals contribute disproportionately to higher emissions and have a high potential for emissions reductions while maintaining decent living standards and well-being,” the report says.
But “demand-side solutions require both motivation and capacity for change,” and the IPCC acknowledges that motivation for households and individuals to reduce their energy use is generally low. It suggests a combination of price signals and behavioural “nudges” to build momentum.
Beyond the focus on individuals, the report says “coordinated change in several domains” can produce “new low-carbon configurations with cascading mitigation effects.” But that means navigating “sometimes antagonistic processes” that span behaviour, culture, institutions, businesses, and technologies.
When it works, however, “coordinating the way choices are presented to end users and planners, physical infrastructures, new technologies, and related business models can rapidly realize system-level change.”