Following the International Vienna Energy and Climate Forum in November 2023, IIASA researcher Benigna Boza-Kiss reflects on the contribution from the IIASA EDITS project team to this conference, which brought together experts from various disciplines to discuss multi-faceted energy demand in cities like Vienna.

In 2018, IIASA researchers showed that an energy system transformation led by drastic changes on the demand-side, in other words, in the ways we consume energy to fulfill human needs, could lead to a more than 40% reduction in final energy demand in 2050, and consequently make it easier to decarbonize energy supply. According to the latest report of the IPCC, we are in a crucial decade to effectively limit global temperature increase to below 2°C, and demand-side solutions can lead to fast and drastic emission reductions.

The building sector exerts significant impacts on climate accounting for 40% of energy consumption, 33% of greenhouse gas emissions, 30% of raw material consumption, and 40% of waste generation worldwide. It is the prime emitter of greenhouse gases when taking into account the embodied energy of construction materials.

Against this backdrop, the Energy Demand changes Induced by Technological and Social innovations (EDITS) initiative was set up. The initiative is coordinated by IIASA and the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE). The EDITS network reaches across disciplines to identify gaps and potentials to enhance modeling, and to analyze and communicate the demand-side solutions of energy and material systems for better and easier climate mitigation and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

EDITS collaborated with the Global Forum on Sustainable Energy (GFSE) to run a solutions platform at the International Vienna Energy and Climate Forum (IVEF) on 3 November 2023. We wanted to provoke discussions and ideas on societal and technological transformations that could form the basis for new lifestyles to create a modern, more just, net-zero world through innovations.

Ensuring wellbeing and access to essential- and social services is why society requires materials and energy. Placing individual level transformations at the center of solutions to drastically reduce energy consumption globally does not mean shifting the responsibility of climate mitigation to people. On the contrary, it is about empowering people by providing access to the right infrastructure, technology, and incentives. Many new cities will be built in the developing world so there is a huge opportunity to foster inclusive growth by staying clear of unsustainable practices.

At the IVECF, IIASA Sustainable Service Systems Research Group Leader, Bas van Ruijven talked about the energy system leverage effects of demand-side solutions and said that a “low energy demand development reduces dependence on uncertain and unknown carbon dioxide removal technologies (CDR), as well as trade-offs between mitigation and the SDGs, particularly those related to biodiversity and food security, and offers increased flexibility for critical choices on the energy supply side.” He was supported by IIASA researcher Alessio Mastrucci, who showed that large megatrends, such as digitalization, the sharing economy, and circular economy can bring about unexpected major shifts in the ways people’s needs are satisfied.

A recent, well-known example is the widespread adoption of home office solutions that allow people to carry out their work from different locations, while reducing emissions, for example, those associated with commuting. Elisabeth Sibille (klimaaktiv, Austria) showed the long way we still have to go to carry out wide-scale energy-efficient retrofitting of Austrian buildings. She presented real life examples of deep and step-wise retrofit options and how their impact is way beyond energy savings, such as improved indoor comfort and positive social effects. The klimaaktiv program is a well-established system that supports these retrofit actions, helping Austria to achieve its sustainability goals across environmental, social, and economic aspects.

Daniela Huber (Sozialbau, Austria) led the discussion fully into the social benefits realm. It is critical to view energy retrofits and other efficiency improvements as ways to deliver a multitude of benefits. Sozialbau supports the public sector and political decision makers in the city of Vienna with the implementation of a sustainable, affordable, architecturally valuable, and ecological housing policy. Its "Raus aus Gas” ("Out of gas") program focuses on centralizing the heating and cooling supply to communal heating systems by providing widespread use of photovoltaic electricity and other innovative solutions. The emphasis is always on the benefits for residents, such as improved quality of life, as well as energy and cost savings.

Technological innovation is a crucial component of any mitigation strategy, but the picture is incomplete without social and infrastructural change. While the IPCC Working Group III report found that about half of the emissions reductions required until 2030 to remain below 2°C can be achieved with technologies that are currently available, and with costs of less than US$100/tCO2, the rest of emission reductions will need to come from novel technologies and new megatrends. How these megatrends form our future must be carefully streamlined by public policies and programs that build on real life examples and solutions, while highlighting the benefits of using less energy. Cities can be a source of social inclusion and wellbeing, local communities, economic activity, and productivity, as well as physical and mental health.

EDITS is an initiative coordinated by the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE) and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and funded by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), Japan.


Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the IIASA blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.