Europe’s path to carbon neutrality: A move to ‘sobriété énergétique’?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

What is ‘sobriété énergétique’ and what is its role in pushing Europe towards its carbon reduction goals? Kamila Waciega explains.

Kamila Waciega is the director, energy, at Veolia Public Affairs Department

Energy efficiency and ‘sobriété énergetique’ have to go hand in hand for a decarbonised Europe. Only combined will they help us significantly reduce our primary and final energy consumption, as well as the use of other resources – and hence diminish our impact on the environment.

The term “sobriété énergetique” was coined in France and it remains quite tough to translate to other languages as a literal translation might suggest something related to abstinence, while the concept itself hints more at our ability to apply the principles of moderation and frugality to the use of energy in everyday life.

Why could this concept be relevant for the EU? Mainly because we are at a very peculiar moment: the European Commission is in the final stages of elaboration of its 2050 low carbon strategy intended to integrate the Paris agreement commitments into its general regulatory framework.

And while the underpinning consultation was focused mostly on technology and process-related changes that need to be introduced to deliver on net zero carbon emissions by 2050, relatively little has been said on what importance the “sobriété énergétique” would have to take us there.

So, what is “sobriété énergétique”? It is not the same as energy efficiency, which can be defined as a measure or process that consists of reducing energy consumption by a piece of equipment with better efficiency and fewer losses in energy production or consumption.

Hence, it is essentially about the performance and the proper use of various types of equipment and infrastructures, which consume energy. Sobriété énergetique, or energy frugality for lack of a better term, aims at reducing our energy consumption not only by privileging more efficient equipment but also by deliberately choosing to modify our usages of it, in order to reduce our overall energy consumption.

Sobriété comes from a Greek word “Sophrosyne” and refers to a conscious strategy to achieve moderation regarding our energy consumption and to rediscover healthy limits.

To give an example it is about choosing well and sufficiently dimensioned equipment for our needs (fridge, flat we live in, car we drive or carpool); to supervise the way we use the equipment (level and duration of the use, for instance by avoiding standby mode); to cooperate and share (of transport means, housing, equipment and preference for short circuits of production and distribution, etc).

Because it is based on consumers’ behaviour, it affects individual and collective choices regarding our consumption patterns. It is also about decoupling the notion of energy use from the service this usage provides and making an educated choice of the most essential services – over less important, futile and sometimes even harmful ones.

Taking as an example the choice of a heating solution for a newly constructed district, going for efficient district heating networks is not only an efficiency-driven option.

By opting for district energy, inhabitants are also giving up on their freedom of choice and autonomy individual heating solutions provide them with, but for the benefit of greater collective gains – including the possibility of massive integration of renewable and waste energy sources that are to be found locally, and reduced CO2 and fine particles emissions.

The behavioural piece is also essential when energy performance contracting and thermal renovation of buildings are being deployed, as part of deep staged renovation strategies. Both EPC and renovation works will surpass expected results in terms of energy saving if buildings users are made aware of how their behaviour can affect optimised and renovated installations.

Therefore “sobriété” is a significant piece of the decarbonisation puzzle. Responsible energy consumption is necessary to reduce overall primary and final energy use and according to the scenario elaborated by the French think thank négaWatt, sobriété énergetique represents half of the potential to reach 50% reduction of energy consumption in France.

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