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Climate Action Epistomology Part 3: Demand Management in the IPCC Mitigation Report

April 5, 2023

Ed. note: You can find the previous articles in this series on Resilience.org here and here.

The first IPCC report was published in 1990. Three decades later, in its sixth version, it contains for the first time a chapter on demand management. The chapter discusses ways to reduce our demand for the services that meet our needs and improve those services’ efficiency, which results in lower consumption of energy and materials. Demand-side solutions to the climate crisis are the counterpart to supply-side solutions like renewable energy deployment, which typically receive most of the focus. Many of the interventions are non-technical, involving drivers of demand like culture, infrastructure (e.g. car-centric versus public transit-oriented cities), and lifestyles. The IPCC report is in large part a reflection of academics’ interest in particular topics, and attention to demand management has grown rapidly over time.

The different demand-side mitigation strategies are categorized within an “Avoid, Shift, Improve” (ASI) framework. It refers to avoiding unnecessary consumption (beyond what’s required to meet needs), shifting to more efficient means of need satisfaction, and improving the efficiency of current practices. The largest emissions reduction potential among Avoid options comes from reducing long-haul flights and providing urban infrastructure that facilitates public transit, cycling, or walking. The most impactful Shift option is to switch to plant-based diets. And the top Improve option is increased use of energy-efficient end-use technologies in our buildings (like LEDs for lighting).

How significant is the potential emissions impact of demand reduction? The report finds that demand-side strategies have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, land-based transportation, and food by 40-70% globally by 2050. In other words, it’s an impact at the scale of the climate crisis. Yet until now “less attention has been paid to deep demand-side reductions . . . primarily due to limited past representation of such service-oriented interventions in long-term integrated assessment models (IAMs) and energy systems models (ESMs),” which historically “have taken technology-centric approaches.” Low demand scenarios are also notable because they boost the technological feasibility of the transition by dramatically reducing the need for unproven carbon dioxide removal strategies and the renewable energy deployment rate.

Because increased consumption is assumed to always lead to increased well-being, demand-side solutions that aim to reduce consumption are justified by a deeper understanding of quality of life called Decent Living Standards (DLS). It provides “a universal set of service requirements essential for achieving basic human well-being. DLS includes the dimensions of nutrition, shelter, living condition, clothing, health care, education, and mobility. DLS provides a fair, direct way to understand the basic low-carbon energy needs of society and specifies the underlying material and energy requirements.” It “serves as a socio-economic benchmark as it views human welfare not in relation to consumption but rather in terms of services which together help meet human needs.”

The immense significance of the IPCC putting forward DLS as a serious concept for guiding emissions reductions is that it seems to call for an economy whose goal is meeting basic needs rather than maximizing profit, economic growth, and consumption. Consider the following statements from the demand management chapter (five):

  • Working to decouple human development and emissions “implies there is a need to prioritise human well-being and the environment over economic growth.”
  • The various factors that shape our demand for energy and materials “either contribute to the status quo of a global high-carbon, consumption- and GDP growth-oriented economy, or help generate the desired change to a low-carbon energy-services, well-being, and equity-oriented economy.”
  • “Strong sustainability business models are characterised by identifying nature as the primary stakeholder, strong local anchorage, the creation of diversified income sources, and deliberate limitations on economic growth.”
  • “GDP is a poor metric of human well-being, and climate policy evaluation requires better grounding in relation to decent living standards and/or similar benchmarks. . . The working of economic systems under a well-being-driven rather than GDP-driven paradigm requires better understanding.”

It is hard to understate how crucial these ideas are. The climate crisis is typically regarded as an issue that can be solved by transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy while leaving the basic structure of the economy intact. But the IPCC chapter on demand management doesn’t simply highlight the carbon reduction benefits of consuming less. It also suggests that creating a fundamentally different economy, predicated on needs rather than wants, is a key part of our response to the crisis.

However, the transformation we need goes beyond the economy. Changes to our culture and lifestyles are also key for turning low-demand pathways into reality. “Most global mitigation pathways that limit warming to 2°C (>67%) or lower assume substantial behavioural and societal change and low-carbon lifestyles,” the report observes. Thankfully, the authors recognize that asking individuals to make different consumption choices is not sufficient for large-scale issues, a point that activists have been highlighting for years. They specify that “behavioural change not embedded in structural change will contribute little to climate change mitigation, suggesting that behavioural change is not only a function of individual agency but also depends on other enabling factors, such as the provision of infrastructure and institutions.” We must facilitate a shift towards low-carbon lifestyles because we need many millions of people in high-emission countries to adopt them.

Ultimately, the report identifies five areas that shape our demand and therefore must be part of the transition: our economy, culture, lifestyles, governing institutions, and technology. When one reflects on just how much could change by pursuing DLS for all, it becomes clear that we’re talking about creating a new society. However, the report doesn’t clearly convey the deep transformation involved in creating a low-demand world. Some of the magnitude needs to be pieced together by the reader. For instance, the authors do not directly and frequently assert the need for an economy focused on meeting basic needs, but rather suggest its necessity through statements sprinkled in the text like those quoted above.

The authors also don’t sufficiently convey the challenges of a DLS transition. A few observations hint at the struggle involved. Many Avoid and Shift options “are difficult because they encounter psychological barriers of breaking routines, habits and imagining new lifestyles and the social costs of not conforming to society.” “‘Avoid’ options that reduce service levels (e.g. sufficiency or downshifting) imply very substantial behavioural and cultural changes that may not resonate with mainstream consumers.” But the report gives no indication of the significant cultural battles that may need to be waged and won to create a sustainable society.

The studies mainly point to one level of cultural change: developing lower-consumption norms. Examples of behavior change explored by models include “heating and cooling set-point adjustments, shorter showers, reduced appliance use, shifts to public transit, less meat-intensive diets, and improved recycling.” But while changes like these would invite their own battles, there is a deeper level of cultural change necessitated by the limits we would need to place on consumption to achieve DLS for all. Many wealthy countries consume at levels far beyond what is required for a decent life, so reducing consumption in these countries could maintain DLS there while reducing emissions and also creating space for countries below DLS to consume more. “A mitigation strategy that protects minimum levels of essential-goods service delivery for DLS, but critically views consumption beyond the point of diminishing returns of needs satisfaction, is able to sustain well-being while generating emissions reductions,” the authors write.

In other words, we’re talking about “the establishment of minimum and maximum standards of consumption, or sustainable consumption corridors.” We would need to enshrine these limits in law, rely on our governing institutions to uphold them, and accept the resulting scale of redistribution. This transition faces cultural barriers that aren’t explored in the report. These include consumerist habits and identities, a belief that there cannot be limits to personal wealth, anti-government sentiment, and lack of community solidarity. We need to redefine what it means to be free on a finite planet.

Perhaps the magnitude of the struggle ahead isn’t highlighted because the low-demand studies themselves essentially anticipate only positive results from carefully implemented reductions in demand. “There is medium evidence and high agreement that well-designed demand for services scenarios are consistent with adequate levels of well-being for everyone, with high and/or improved quality of life and improved levels of happiness and sustainable human development.” It sounds like this transition would simply improve everyone’s life. But as discussed in the previous section, models can’t offer definitive answers to our questions, including whether DLS for all is possible within the planetary boundaries we’ve been eroding. The report cites just three studies when mentioning that “some current literature estimates that it is possible to meet decent living standards for all within the 2°C warming window.” If it turns out that it isn’t possible, then we would either need to accept lifestyles somewhat below DLS at least in the medium term (i.e. during an energy- and resource-intensive transition) or accept some amount of warming beyond 2°C. Part of making the transition feasible is preparing for such challenges in advance.

How do we move towards a DLS-for-all world? One necessity is having a sense of where we’re going. That would require the IPCC report to take a clearer position on the feasibility of economic growth alongside rapid emissions reductions and discuss the workings of a non-growing economy. The authors could address the latter by reviewing the ecological economics literature, which offers decades of thinking on steady-state economic institutions. While overlooking that discipline, they do highlight some literature on degrowth, which examines the deliberate and equitable downscaling of economic production in countries with excessive consumption. Though the report refers to degrowth at one point as “the option of economic decline,” its coverage overall is pretty balanced, acknowledging how crucial degrowth approaches to reducing emissions may be. “Several studies find that only a GDP non-growth/degrowth or post-growth approach enable reaching climate stabilisation below 2°C, or to minimize the risks of reliance on high energy-GDP decoupling, large-scale [carbon dioxide removal technologies] and large-scale renewable energy deployment,” the authors note in chapter three. Chapter six even identifies “the objectives of modern economies and the potentially contradictory dynamics embedded in the concept of ‘green growth’” as an example of the “embedded institutions, norms, beliefs, and ideas that would need to change to support net zero energy systems.” However, in many areas the report suggests that continued economic growth is both possible and a worthy goal for businesses and nations to pursue.

We also need to create space for a DLS society to emerge from the present one. As mentioned in the previous section, what we gain in technological feasibility when following the low-demand scenarios comes at the cost of lower political and cultural feasibility. To realize those scenarios, we’ll need to lay the cultural groundwork for a society organized around meeting basic needs. Part of this groundwork involves public education about how lifestyles may need to change and why it’s so critical for emissions reductions. We’ll need to highlight the ways in which well-being can simultaneously improve and acknowledge the difficulties involved in this transition. Fostering informed public deliberation is vital. The report observes that “the acceptability of collective social change over a longer term towards less resource-intensive lifestyles depends on social mandate building through public participation, discussion and debate over information provided by experts, to produce recommendations that inform policymaking.” This effort also requires us to challenge the core cultural norms cited above that impede DLS implementation (e.g. consumerism). We need to stimulate discussion across society about the misalignment between contemporary worldviews and humanity’s ability to survive and flourish on a finite planet.

Mass movements are the only force capable of driving this societal transformation. The IPCC’s authors frequently mention the need for cultural change, but activists aren’t sufficiently focused on it. We’ll need that to change first.

Despite the inclusion of demand management in the latest IPCC report, technological means of reducing emissions remain the primary focus. Technological potential is the topic we turn to next.


Teaser photo credit courtesy of unsplash

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is an activist writing a book about why our ecological crises demand economic and cultural transformation, not just an energy transition, and how the climate movement can lay the groundwork for these changes. He writes at freedomsurvival.org and tweets @LimitsLiberate

Tags: demand management, IPCC report 2022, social transformation