Enough Already: Why Sufficiency Matters

A Finnish study looks at the questions of efficiency versus sufficiency.

Helsinki in snow

Miemo Penttinen - Getty Images

The recent launch of the Hummer EV (and the responses to my complaints about it) makes this a good time to talk about sufficiency. How much do we really need? What is reasonable, what is enough, what is sufficient? It is a subject we have covered many times before; most recently we quoted the authors of a study who wrote "More is not always better, and we need to create the infrastructures and systems that will allow people to live good lives, within the planet’s environmental limits."

Study cover

The Finnish Climate Change Panel

Discussing individual consumption or the idea of sufficiency is not taken seriously in North America, but it is in Finland, the source of the 1.5 degree lifestyle report. The Finns even have a movement, Kohtuusliike (or moderation), devoted to sufficiency. Now Finnish low-carbon activist Aarne Granlund points out another study, "The Sufficiency Perspective in Climate Policy: How to Recompose Consumption" (PDF here) researched by Tina Nyfors, which suggests strategies for reducing emissions by addressing consumption and sufficiency.

Finland has been addressing its carbon emissions, and officially, they have decreased by 21%. But that's using the standard method of calculation; emissions from production, the emissions that take place within the borders. It doesn't include emissions from imported goods and services. When they look at consumption-based emissions, they haven't decreased at all. "Consumption-based emissions abroad is of growing concern globally since around a fourth of all emissions are consumed in a different country to that in which they were produced." We are exporting our emissions to the countries that make the stuff that we consume. But thinking about consumption means we can't blame the 100 oil companies, we have to take personal responsibility.

"As a complement to efficiency, sufficiency directs attention to consumption, calling for a reduction of the absolute levels of consumption and addressing overconsumption in rich countries in order to stay within the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity. Sufficiency can have different forms: reduction and consuming less includes examples such as driving fewer kilometres or eating less meat. Substitution and fulfilling needs in another way means for example shifting to public transport from a private car, to a plant-based diet from a diet with a lot of meat or partly replacing clothes washing by airing clothes. Adjusting consumption to meet needs can include lowering room temperatures and reducing apartment size in relation to the number of inhabitants."

The report reiterates a lot of points we have discussed on Treehugger before, including how increases in efficiency do not necessarily lead to significant reductions in energy consumption: "gains in efficiency, leading to lower prices, are offset by increased consumption, which in turn leads to increased overall emissions and resource use." That's how we got bigger SUVs and pickups, and LEDs on everything.

Sufficiency, on the other hand, is all about using less, not just using it more efficiently.

"To illustrate the difference between efficiency and sufficiency, we can take energy consumption as an example. Where efficiency reduces energy input and keeps the service unchanged (e.g. low-energy lightbulbs), sufficiency means reduced energy input and that there is a quantitative or qualitative change in the service (fewer lights). Hence, increasing efficiency tends not to imply changes in behaviour whereas sufficiency usually entails changes in individual behaviour. Sufficiency is about an ‘appropriate level of consumption’."

It is not about sacrifice; the message is "enough can be plenty." It is about making appropriate choices and lifestyle changes, many of which are Treehugger correct: "repairing, reusing, sharing, recycling and prolonging the lifespan of goods, as well as decreasing or stopping using goods and services with a high ecological impact."


The Finnish Climate Change Panel

In fact, so far this is all stuff we have been writing about on Treehugger. Where this report gets really interesting is when it starts talking about policy to promote sufficiency. For instance, with respect to mobility, The most obvious regulatory approaches might be to limit the use of private cars, the economic approach might be to apply carbon taxes, the nudging approach would be to build great bike lanes. Cooperation might be to set up sharing and collaborative consumption; Information might be labeling of high-carbon products.

The study authors conclude that we need to start taking consumption-based carbon accounting seriously. "The consumption-based approach considers global trade patterns and captures emissions from international flying and shipping since they are not included in territorial statistics." They also concluded that just dealing with efficiency isn't enough, that it is "an inadequate sole strategy for solving the climate crisis." Sufficiency, on the other hand, refers to absolute environmental limits and the focus is on an "absolute reduction of consumption, emissions and material use." But it's not easy.

However, the wonderful thing about this report is that it sets out a strategy, a way of encouraging sufficiency that goes beyond just moral suasion, a framework. In an earlier post I wrote with tongue in cheek that "there are a number of ways to get people to reduce their consumption and carbon emissions; global pandemics have been shown to work well, as do depressions and economic collapse." A bit of regulation, cooperation, and nudging sounds like a better plan.