Scenarios that limit global warming to 1.5 °C describe major transformations in energy supply and ever-rising energy demand. Here, we provide a contrasting perspective by developing a narrative of future change based on observable trends that results in low energy demand. We describe and quantify changes in activity levels and energy intensity in the global North and global South for all major energy services. We project that global final energy demand by 2050 reduces to 245 EJ, around 40% lower than today, despite rises in population, income and activity. Using an integrated assessment modelling framework, we show how changes in the quantity and type of energy services drive structural change in intermediate and upstream supply sectors (energy and land use). Down-sizing the global energy system dramatically improves the feasibility of a low-carbon supply-side transformation. Our scenario meets the 1.5 °C climate target as well as many sustainable development goals, without relying on negative emission technologies.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Riahi, K. et al. in GEA Writing Team (ed.) Global Energy Assessment: Toward a Sustainable Future 1203–1306 (Cambridge Univ. Press and IIASA, 2012).

  2. 2.

    Wilson, C., Grübler, A., Gallagher, K. S. & Nemet, G. F. Marginalization of end-use technologies in energy innovation for climate protection. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 780–788 (2012).

  3. 3.

    Rogelj, J. et al. Energy system transformations for limiting end-of-century warming to below 1.5 °C. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 519–527 (2015).

  4. 4.

    Smith, P. et al. Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 42–50 (2016).

  5. 5.

    Gilli, P. V., Nakicenovic, N. & Kurz, R. First- and Second-Law Efficiencies of the Global and Regional Energy Systems Report RR-96-2 (IIASA, Laxenburg, 1996).

  6. 6.

    Cullen, J. M. & Allwood, J. M. Theoretical efficiency limits for energy conversion devices. Energy 35, 2059–2069 (2010).

  7. 7.

    Fricko, O. et al. The marker quantification of the Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 2: a middle-of-the-road scenario for the 21st century. Glob. Environ. Change 42, 251–267 (2017).

  8. 8.

    Jahan, S. et al. Human Development Report (HDR) 2016: Human Development for Everyone (UNDP, New York, 2016).

  9. 9.

    World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision (UN DESA, New York, 2015).

  10. 10.

    Fouquet, R. The slow search for solutions: lessons from historical energy transitions by sector and service. Energy Policy 38, 6586–6596 (2010).

  11. 11.

    Schot, J., Kanger, L. & Verbong, G. The roles of users in shaping transitions to new energy systems. Nat. Energy 1, 16054 (2016).

  12. 12.

    ICT Facts and Figures 2017 (International Telecommunication Union, Geneva, 2017).

  13. 13.

    Lovins, A. B. et al. Small Is Profitable: The Hidden Economic Benefits of Making Electrical Resources the Right Size (Rocky Mountain Institute, Boulder, 2002).

  14. 14.

    Jain, R. K., Qin, J. & Rajagopal, R. Data-driven planning of distributed energy resources amidst socio-technical complexities. Nat. Energy 2, 2017112 (2017).

  15. 15.

    Frenken, K. Political economies and environmental futures for the sharing economy. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. A 375, 20160367 (2017).

  16. 16.

    Ropke, I., Christensen, T. H. & Jensen, J. O. Information and communication technologies – a new round of household electrification. Energy Policy 38, 1764–1773 (2010).

  17. 17.

    Clarke, L. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) Ch. 6 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2014).

  18. 18.

    Rao, N. D. & Min, J. Decent living standards: material prerequisites for human wellbeing. Soc. Indic. Res. (2017); https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-017-1650-0

  19. 19.

    De Stercke, S. Dynamics of Energy Systems: A Useful Perspective IIASA Interim Report IR-14-013 (IIASA, Laxenburg, 2014).

  20. 20.

    Nakicenovic, N. et al. Special Report on Emission Scenarios (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).

  21. 21.

    von Stechow, C. et al. 2 °C and SDGs: united they stand, divided they fall? Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 034022 (2016).

  22. 22.

    Fouquet, R. Long-run demand for energy services: income and price elasticities over two hundred years. Rev. Env. Econ. Policy 8, 186–207 (2014).

  23. 23.

    Engel, E. Die productions-und consumtionsverhältnisse des königreichs sachsen. Z. Des. Stat. Bur. Des. Königlich Sächsischen Minist. Des. Inn. 8, 1–54 (1857).

  24. 24.

    Ausubel, J. H. & Waggoner, P. E. Dematerialization: variety, caution, and persistence. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 12774–12779 (2008).

  25. 25.

    Sivak, M. & Schoettle, B. Recent Decreases in the Proportion of Persons with a Driver’s License Across All Age Groups Report No. UMTRI-2016-4 (The University of Michigan, Transportation Research Institute, Ann Arbor, 2016).

  26. 26.

    Millard‐Ball, A. & Schipper, L. Are we reaching peak travel? Trends in passenger transport in eight industrialized countries. Transp. Rev. 31, 357–378 (2011).

  27. 27.

    Kandel, A., Sheridan, M. & McAuliffe, P. in 2008 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings (eds Baechler, M. & Brown, R.) 8-123–8-134 (ACEEE, Washington DC, 2008).

  28. 28.

    Geels, F. W., Berkhout, F. & van Vuuren, D. P. Bridging analytical approaches for low-carbon transitions. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 576–583 (2016).

  29. 29.

    Gallagher, K. S., Grübler, A., Kuhl, L., Nemet, G. & Wilson, C. The energy technology innovation system. Annu. Rev. Env. Resour. 37, 137–162 (2012).

  30. 30.

    Seto, K. C. et al. Carbon lock-in: types, causes, and policy implications. Annu. Rev. Env. Resour. 41, 425–452 (2016).

  31. 31.

    International Transport Forum ITF Transport Outlook 2017 (OECD Publishing, Paris, 2017).

  32. 32.

    Energy Technology Perspectives 2017—Catalysing Energy Technology Transformations (OECD/IEA, Paris, 2017).

  33. 33.

    Güneralp, B. et al. Global scenarios of urban density and its impacts on building energy use through 2050. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 8945–8950 (2017).

  34. 34.

    Allwood, J. & Cullen, J. Sustainable Materials—with Both Eyes Open: Future Buildings, Vehicles, Products and Equipment—Made Efficiently and Made with Less New Material (UIT Cambridge, Cambridge (2011).

  35. 35.

    Ürge-Vorsatz, D. et al. in GEA Writing Team (ed.) Global Energy Assessment—Toward a Sustainable Future 649–760 (Cambridge Univ. Press and IIASA, 2012).

  36. 36.

    Energiesprong Foundation. EnergieSprong http://energiesprong.eu (accessed 10 February 2018)

  37. 37.

    International Transport Forum ITF Transport Outlook 2015 (OECD Publishing, Paris, 2015).

  38. 38.

    FAO, IFAD & WFP The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015—International Hunger Targets: Taking Stock of Uneven Progress (FAO, Rome, 2015).

  39. 39.

    Kumssa, D. B. et al. Dietary calcium and zinc deficiency risks are decreasing but remain prevalent. Sci. Rep. 5, 10974 (2015).

  40. 40.

    Kallis, G. Radical dematerialization and degrowth. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. A. 375, 20160383 (2017).

  41. 41.

    Riahi, K., Grübler, A. & Nakicenovic, N. Scenarios of long-term socio-economic and environmental development under climate stabilization. Technol. Forecast Soc. 74, 887–935 (2007).

  42. 42.

    Havlík, P. et al. Climate change mitigation through livestock system transitions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 3709–3714 (2014).

  43. 43.

    Huppmann, D. et al. The MESSAGEix Integrated Assessment Model and the ix modeling platform (ixmp). (International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), 2018).

  44. 44.

    Riahi, K. et al. The shared socioeconomic pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: an overview. Glob. Environ. Change 42, 153–168 (2017).

  45. 45.

    O’Neill, B. C. et al. The roads ahead: narratives for shared socioeconomic pathways describing world futures in the 21st century. Glob. Environ. Change 42, 169–180 (2017).

  46. 46.

    Rogelj, J. et al. Transition pathways towards limiting climate change below 1.5 °C. Nat. Clim. Change doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0091-3 (2018).

  47. 47.

    Samir, K. & Lutz, W. The human core of the shared socioeconomic pathways: population scenarios by age, sex and level of education for all countries to 2100. Glob. Environ. Change 42, 181–192 (2017).

  48. 48.

    Dellink, R., Chateau, J., Lanzi, E. & Magné, B. Long-term economic growth projections in the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways. Glob. Environ. Change 42, 200–214 (2017).

  49. 49.

    Rogner, H.-H. An assessment of world hydrocarbon resources. Annu. Rev. Energ. Env. 22, 217–262 (1997).

  50. 50.

    Pietzcker, R. C., Stetter, D., Manger, S. & Luderer, G. Using the sun to decarbonize the power sector: the economic potential of photovoltaics and concentrating solar power. Appl. Energ. 135, 704–720 (2014).

  51. 51.

    Eurek, K. et al. An improved global wind resource estimate for integrated assessment models. Energ. Econ. 64, 552–567 (2017).

  52. 52.

    Johnson, N. et al. A reduced-form approach for representing the impacts of wind and solar PV deployment on the structure and operation of the electricity system. Energ. Econ. 64, 651–664 (2017).

  53. 53.

    Sullivan, P., Krey, V. & Riahi, K. Impacts of considering electric sector variability and reliability in the MESSAGE model. Energy Strateg. Rev. 1, 157–163 (2013).

  54. 54.

    IEA World Energy Outlook (OECD/IEA, Paris, 2014).

  55. 55.

    Amann, M. et al. Cost-effective control of air quality and greenhouse gases in Europe: modeling and policy applications. Environ. Model. Softw. 26, 1489–1501 (2011).

  56. 56.

    Meinshausen, M., Raper, S. C. & Wigley, T. M. Emulating coupled atmosphere–ocean and carbon cycle models with a simpler model, MAGICC6–Part 1: model description and calibration. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 11, 1417–1456 (2011).

  57. 57.

    Meinshausen, M. et al. Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature 458, 1158–1162 (2009).

  58. 58.

    Rogelj, J., Meinshausen, M., Sedláček, J. & Knutti, R. Implications of potentially lower climate sensitivity on climate projections and policy. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 031003 (2014).

  59. 59.

    Tupy, M.L. Dematerialization (update), in CATO at Liberty (Cato Institute, Washington DC, 2012); https://www.cato.org/blog/dematerialization-update

  60. 60.

    Teske, S. et al. Global Energy [R]evolution—a Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2015: 100% Renewable Energy for All (Greenpeace, Global Wind Energy Council, Solar Power Europe, 2015).

  61. 61.

    Nakicenovic, N. et al. Long-term strategies for mitigating global warming. Energy 18, 401 (1993).

  62. 62.

    Ürge-Vorsatz, D. et al. Locking in positive climate responses in cities. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 174 (2018).

  63. 63.

    von Weizsäcker, E.U. et al. Decoupling 2: Technologies, Opportunities and Policy Options (UNEP, Nairobi, 2014).

  64. 64.

    Kahn Ribeiro, S. et al. in GEA Writing Team (ed) Global Energy Assessment—Toward a Sustainable Future 575–648 (Cambridge Univ. Press and IIASA, 2012).

  65. 65.

    Smith, P. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) Ch. 11 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2014).

  66. 66.

    Valin, H. et al. The future of food demand: understanding differences in global economic models. Agr. Econ. 45, 51–67 (2014).

  67. 67.

    Bajželj, B. et al. Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 924–929 (2014).

  68. 68.

    Banerjee, R. et al. in GEA Writing Team (ed.) Global Energy Assessment—Toward a Sustainable Future 513–574 (Cambridge Univ. Press and IIASA, 2012).

  69. 69.

    GEA Writing Team, Global Energy Assessment—Toward a Sustainable Future (Cambridge Univ. Press and IIASA, 2012).

  70. 70.

    Smith, K. R et al. In: GEA Writing Team (Ed.) Global Energy Assessment—Toward a Sustainable Future. 255–324 (Cambridge Univ. Press and IIASA: 2012).

Download references


The financial contribution from the Research Institute for Innovative Technologies for the Earth (RITE) to this research is gratefully acknowledged. C.W. was also supported by ERC Starting Grant no. 678799. N.D.R. was supported by ERC Starting Grant no. 637462. J.R. acknowledges the support of the Oxford Martin School Visiting Fellowship Programme. N.B. acknowledges the post-doctoral grant (ref.SFRH/BPD/91183/2012) received from Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT).

Author information


  1. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria

    • Arnulf Grubler
    • , Charlie Wilson
    • , Nuno Bento
    • , Benigna Boza-Kiss
    • , Volker Krey
    • , David L. McCollum
    • , Narasimha D. Rao
    • , Keywan Riahi
    • , Joeri Rogelj
    • , Simon De Stercke
    • , Stefan Frank
    • , Oliver Fricko
    • , Fei Guo
    • , Matt Gidden
    • , Petr Havlík
    • , Daniel Huppmann
    • , Gregor Kiesewetter
    • , Peter Rafaj
    • , Wolfgang Schoepp
    •  & Hugo Valin
  2. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich, UK

    • Charlie Wilson
  3. Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), DINÂMIA’CET, Lisbon, Portugal

    • Nuno Bento
  4. Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria

    • Keywan Riahi
  5. Payne Institute, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, USA

    • Keywan Riahi
  6. Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, London, UK

    • Joeri Rogelj
  7. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College London, London, UK

    • Simon De Stercke
  8. University of Cambridge Department of Engineering, Cambridge, UK

    • Jonathan Cullen


  1. Search for Arnulf Grubler in:

  2. Search for Charlie Wilson in:

  3. Search for Nuno Bento in:

  4. Search for Benigna Boza-Kiss in:

  5. Search for Volker Krey in:

  6. Search for David L. McCollum in:

  7. Search for Narasimha D. Rao in:

  8. Search for Keywan Riahi in:

  9. Search for Joeri Rogelj in:

  10. Search for Simon De Stercke in:

  11. Search for Jonathan Cullen in:

  12. Search for Stefan Frank in:

  13. Search for Oliver Fricko in:

  14. Search for Fei Guo in:

  15. Search for Matt Gidden in:

  16. Search for Petr Havlík in:

  17. Search for Daniel Huppmann in:

  18. Search for Gregor Kiesewetter in:

  19. Search for Peter Rafaj in:

  20. Search for Wolfgang Schoepp in:

  21. Search for Hugo Valin in:


A.G. coordinated the project. A.G. and C.W. co-designed the study and co-wrote the initial draft manuscript and Methods. A.G., C.W., N.B., B.B.-K., V.K., D.M., N.D.R., K.R., J.R. and S.D.S. performed technical analyses of energy demand by sector, and contributed to sections of the manuscript, Methods and Supplementary Information. J.C. contributed to the technical analysis of the industry sector and to the Supplementary Information. K.R. coordinated the MESSAGE model runs performed by D.M. and V.K. with support from O.F., F.G., M.G. and D.H. P.H. coordinated the GLOBIOM model runs performed by P.H., S.F., and H.V. G.K., P.R. and W.S. contributed the air pollution and health impact quantifications. The figures were drafted by J.R., S.D.S. and C.W. All the authors contributed to analysing and interpreting the scenario results and commented on the manuscript, Methods and Supplementary Information.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Arnulf Grubler.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Notes 1–12, Supplementary Figures 1–26, Supplementary Tables 1–33, Supplementary References

About this article

Publication history