Is the 2000-watt society a goal of the energy transition?

The concept of the “2000-watt society” refers to a long-term goal, an ideal of energy consumption towards which each country should strive in order to ensure sustainable development on a global scale. As such, this concept helps to promote the energy transition. The value of a 2000-watt society is therefore indicative and in no way constitutes a binding target for Switzerland.

At the end of the 1990s, the Board of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Board) proposed the idea of a low-energy society, the “2000-watt society”, to help formulate an environmental strategy for the 21st century. The term “2000-watt society”, formulated in such a way as to strike a chord, is not very intuitive at first glance, as it uses a unit of power, the watt (W), to describe energy consumption, usually expressed in kilowatt-hours (kWh). In fact, more commonly formulated, the figure of 2000 W corresponds to an average primary energy consumption of 17,500 kWh per capita per year ^[2,000 W x 24 hours x 365 days = 17,520,000 Wh ≈ 17,500 kWh]. Why 2000 W? Simply because this value corresponds approximately to the average global primary energy consumption per person at the end of the last century. The concept of the “2000-watt Society” is based on the assumption that this level of consumption would allow sustainable development on a global scale.

Of course, if this 2000 W comes from fossil energy sources, this society would not be sustainable, since these resources will eventually be exhausted and their use disrupts the climate. It is therefore not enough to set a quantitative limit on primary energy consumption per person; it is necessary to add a target on the nature of the energy agents used. This is why the concept of the “2000 W society” also includes a limit on greenhouse gas emissions, set at one tonne of CO2 per person per year. This limit implies that only about a quarter of the primary energy consumed could continue to come from fossil fuels, with the remaining ¾ having to be supplied by renewable energy sources.

Of course, the question arises as to the appropriateness of this proportion of non-renewable energy “allowed” in the definition of a sustainable energy society: why a quarter instead of a third or a tenth, etc.? On the other hand, the question also arises as to whether it is appropriate to cap the share of renewable energy, since it is precisely these energies that are “renewable” (i.e. in fact inexhaustible on a human scale) and in principle not very damaging to the environment.

Moreover, for methodological reasons, it is very difficult to assess the distance between today’s Switzerland and an ideal 2000 W society. While it is easy to measure our final energy consumption (that which we purchase, such as electricity, petrol, gas, pellets, etc.), it is much more complex to estimate our primary energy consumption, to which the 2000 W society concept refers. According to the definition used in the 2000 W society concept, this primary energy should correspond to the sum of all raw energy (as found in nature, such as oil, coal, wood, etc.) used at the different stages of the production and distribution chain of the products we use (car, house, household appliances, etc.) and the goods we consume (food, electricity, water, etc.).

This methodological difficulty and difficulty in interpreting the definition of grey energy [→ Q93] explains why there are widely varying estimates of primary energy consumption (from 4,600 to 8,300 watts) and CO2 emissions (from 5 to 12 tonnes) per inhabitant per year in Switzerland, all of which are assimilated to the concept of the “2000-watt society”. It is therefore advisable to be cautious when talking about primary energy and to consider the concept of the “2000 W society” as an ideal goal to be achieved in the long term, in order to stimulate energy savings and the development of renewable energies. In its report on the “Sustainable Development Strategy”, the Federal Council set the 2000-watt society as the long-term goal (by 2100). Several cities and cantons use it as a basis for defining their energy policy, and “2000 watt” labels now exist for municipalities and neighbourhoods.


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