Energy Efficiency: An overlooked solution to the energy crisis

Posted on 03 May 2022

Reducing our energy demand is the fastest and most direct way to increase our energy security, lower our energy bills, and help the world meet its climate change targets, writes Richard Scotney, WWF Global Energy Efficiency Lead.
The war in Ukraine is changing the energy policy landscape. Governments are reacting fast to reduce their dependence on Russian fossil oil, coal and gas. However, WWF offices, from Ecuador to Croatia, South Africa to the Arctic, are witnessing negative trends, with fossil fuel lobbyists pushing for increased investment in gas and oil production and infrastructure. This would be devastating for the planet, and throw out the possibility of reaching the 1.5 degree target. 

In Europe, several studies are showing that countries can become independent of Russian gas without building new energy infrastructure. This can be done through increasing renewable energy, and implementing ambitious energy efficiency and conservation measures. 

Energy efficiency and conservation is one of the most impactful ways to respond to the energy crisis. The recent IPCC report showed that measures to reduce demand can cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70 per cent. Yet at the moment, we are not on track on our energy efficiency goals. To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, we need 4 per cent annual advances in energy efficiency, and yet between 2015-20 the world only achieved 1.3 per cent.

And in terms of speed, energy efficiency cannot be beaten. New oil and gas will take 30 years to bring online (by which time the world should not be investing in new fossil fuels anyway!). Nuclear and hydropower typically require over 20 years to establish. Solar is quick, but still can take at least two years to establish. But energy efficiency can start immediately, increasing energy security, cutting bills, and saving energy.

Concentrating on several key areas of energy efficiency can make a huge impact to reduce energy demand:

Reducing heating demand in homes through energy efficiency and switching to renewable heat solutions. Households account for 46 per cent of Europe’s fossil gas use, and have significant reduction potential. Methods to reduce include:
  • Insulation and retrofit: Only 1 per cent of the EU’s building stock is renovated annually. An increase to 1.7 per cent could save 1 billion cubic metres of gas use, according to the IEA. This would have the benefit of creating more than a million green jobs. In Greece, a target has been set for at least 30 per cent of old buildings to improve their energy efficiency. 
  • Better new homes: In Europe, and beyond, building standards still allow for inefficient buildings to be built. In fast growing developing countries, we are locking in huge emissions levels by not enforcing stricter building codes. New builds should also be required to have heat pumps, rather than gas boilers.
  • Public action: Turning down thermostats, turning off heating when we leave the room, and even putting on  warmer clothing can be effective, and deliver faster results. Indeed, the IEA estimates more than 10 billion cubic metres of gas, enough to heat 4 million homes, can be achieved by this action. In Riga, Latvia, the city council is partnering with the city heat provider and Riga Technical University to run a social campaign to call every citizen to review their habits and reduce energy consumption. 
Reducing industrial energy demand, particularly for heating. Industry has become used to low prices for gas in recent years, which has slowed development of alternative solutions. High prices for gas means firms need to consider renewable heat solutions, particularly solar thermal, and switching to electrification. Indeed, it is estimated that through energy efficiency and electrifying low and medium temperature heat processes, we can achieve 223 TWh of savings, equivalent to powering 8 million homes. In addition, further increasing the EU emissions trading reduction target from 61 per cent to 70 per cent will further drive energy efficiency. 

Reducing electricity demand, particularly for air conditioning – Gas for electricity use has doubled in the last year, and in many countries provides most electricity. Reducing electricity demand will also help. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi posed the question “Do you want air conditioning and peace?”, and in many hot countries air conditioning is the main driver of electricity consumption. Italy has mandated that air conditioning be set at no lower than 25 degrees, in line with previous campaigns in Japan and China. What is more important will be to ensure the minimum use of air conditioners. A ceiling fan will typically use 20 times less energy, and the right designed building will not require any air conditioning. As countries heat up due to climate change, we need to not see an increase in air conditioning use.

Reducing demand in transport – Beyond gas, several countries are looking to reduce oil demand, with transport now the biggest source of energy use in many countries. In the short term, allowing working from home, reducing speed limits and carrying out public information campaigns to encourage a shift to public transport and cycling can instantly reduce gas use. In the longer term, building increased cycling and public transport infrastructure, incentivizing a switch to electric vehicles, and promoting the use of smaller cars, can also increase energy security.

Several important policy arenas need to increase. In Europe, the European Union needs to further strengthen its Fit for 55 measures, including increasing the EU's energy efficiency target from 32.5% to 45% by 2030. Individual countries need to encourage reduction in energy demand. WWF Germany has published a series of recommendations (in German) for the German government and society to address the crisis. WWF Austria has also published its 20-point plan (in German).

Beyond Europe, the crisis should show the importance of not depending on volatile fossil fuel prices. In fast-growing Asia, North America, and beyond, governments should be investing now in reducing energy use in new homes, promoting industrial energy efficiency, and investing in transport. The crisis shows the challenge of depending on fossil fuels, and all countries on all continents should consider how reducing energy demand can bring better climate outcomes.

Indeed, WWF offices are responding to this crisis by making the case for energy efficiency efforts. As Voahirana Randriambola of WWF Madagascar says - “The best way forward, given the climate emergency and the global energy crisis, is to accelerate the country's energy independence by optimizing our consumption systems and exploiting local renewable energy resources.” In India, WWF’s Nitin Kaushal says Indians “need to think around the country's self-sufficiency and demand management in energy and fuel”. 

We need a coordinated global response, both in Europe and across the world. The forthcoming G7 and G20 meetings provides a unique opportunity for the world to react to the energy crisis, and further commit to increasing action on energy efficiency. Throughout the WWF network, we are committed to preserving nature, and our offices are working to ensure the right decisions are made to address the energy crisis. 

As Sergio Bonati, of WWF Spain commented, “there are basically two  possible responses to the current crisis: 1) Producing more fossil fuels and/or sourcing it from different regions, which means higher investments and longer dependency on fossil fuels 2) Accelerating the deployment of renewable energies and energy efficiency with urgent measures, worldwide collaboration, and increased funding, etc. Our choice is clear: we must ensure that governments choose option 2.”
Reducing the energy used by cooling and heating can have a major impact on emissions.
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