From efficiency to sufficiency in climate policy

Lassi Linnanen,
Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology,

Climate impact of end consumption is significant. Approximately 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from domestic household consumption. This figure differs from the official emissions accounting. The traditional way of calculating carbon emissions is to focus on the emissions emitted within the territory of a country, called national emission inventories. These are the basis of the reporting of emissions to the UNFCCC.

Consumption-based emission accounting includes emissions from imported goods and services, and excludes emissions from exports. Approximately one quarter of global emissions are consumed in a different country than they are produced. Developed countries have outsourced a large share of their emissions to developing countries, leading to the situation that a large share of emission increase in developing countries comes from production aimed at export to developed countries.

Territorial emissions of a developed country might even seemingly decrease at the same time as the consumption-based emissions increase because of imported goods and services with embedded emissions. Allocating at least part of the emissions to the consuming country could make climate policy more effective and increase global equity. However, to date, no country has targets for reducing consumption-based accounting.

What is the right policy response to reduce our individual carbon footprint? The dominant approach for decreasing emissions has been to focus on efficiency, producing goods and services more efficiently.  Less fuel consumption per kilometer, less energy required for a ton of steel or paper. This reduces resource input and emissions per unit, but does not address overall resource use. Remarkable increase in industrial efficiency has not brought about a decrease in total energy use despite potential to do so. It is widely recognized that a rebound effect is likely to occur, also known as Jevon’s paradox. This means that gains in efficiency, leading to lower prices, are outset by increased consumption, which in turn leads to increased overall resource use and emissions. Relatively better, absolutely worse.

The concept of sufficiency is nowadays considered as a key to reach global environmental targets by many leading scholars. Sufficiency focuses on absolute reductions of consumption, emissions and material use. Sufficiency raises the question about how much consumption is perceived as enough providing what is necessary, and staying within the ecological boundaries. To illustrate the difference between efficiency and sufficiency: where efficiency reduces energy input and keeps the service unchanged, sufficiency means reduced energy input and that there is a quantitative or qualitative change in the service. Sufficiency view is closely connected to the notion that fundamental changes in the economy are needed, as has been brought up by many degrowth scholars.

Sufficiency policy differs from conventional policy. Rather than focusing on a specific product, the starting point is certain needs. What is an acceptable minimum level and how much is too much? What is  an appropriate level of consumption? What products and services are really necessary? According to theory of need by Gough, there are universal basic needs such as health and participation in society that are satisfied through adequate nutritional food and water, adequate protective housing and appropriate health care. On the other hand many current traits as air travel, meat, cosmetics, large houses and SUV:s are mentioned as negotiable, useless consumption.

Potential sufficiency policy instruments include:

  • Banning and/or much higher taxation/ removal of subsidies of high-carbon options e.g. for meat (nutrition), flights (mobility)
  • Obligation to provide low-carbon options
  • Restriction on advertisements of specific products or services with high impact on resource consumption (like health consideration have restricted advertising of alcohol and tobacco products)
  • Experimenting with personal carbon allowances

Since putting sufficiency policy into practice is new, small-scale experiments with motivated individuals may be needed before implementation at a larger scale. For example, our research group has experimented with personal carbon trade in Lahti. Within Citicap project, we have developed a personal carbon trading scheme for mobility as part of the Lahti region’s transport policy. The scheme is now in testing phase. Participants in the personal trading scheme will get tangible benefits, e.g. free bus tickets, when reducing their own emissions from mobility. The project received substantial 4,7 million Euro support from EU’s Urban Innovative Actions initiative. Citizens and households are indeed in a central position for innovations that take consumption practices in a sufficient direction.

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