Close up of a person pouring boiled water from a kettle into two mugs on the kitchen counter

People in Europe are already using less energy as prices rise.Credit: Yau Ming Low/Alamy

A hard winter is fast approaching in Europe. With inflation already straining household budgets in many countries, the war in Ukraine is constricting oil and gas supplies just as demand is expected to rise during the cold winter months. The effects could be devastating, particularly for those who already live in poverty. There is evidence that some are already conserving energy in response. But how much will they cut back — and how long will new habits last?

Behavioural scientists are gearing up to study these questions. “It’s a very important and interesting time for energy conservation,” says Mark Andor, a behavioural economist at the RWI-Leibniz Institute for Economic Research in Essen, Germany. “There is a lot of research going on at the moment.”

Early evidence suggests that belt-tightening has begun. A UK Office for National Statistics survey about the cost-of-living crisis found that people there are already cutting back on gas and electricity use, notes Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath, UK. A study in Germany reported a 6% decrease in natural-gas consumption in March and April1, and consumption was down 29% there during the first full week in October, relative to the same week in 2021.

Short-term fix

Past energy-price shocks, such as the 1970s oil crisis, suggest that consumers tended to focus more on immediate cost cutting and less on longer-term investments in energy-sparing appliances and infrastructure, such as efficient heating systems or improved insulation, says Whitmarsh. So far, few data are available to show the extent to which people are turning to such investments during the current crisis. But Andor notes that the ability to make such changes could be limited. Heat pumps, for example, and people with the expertise to install them, are in short supply in Germany.

Researchers are also keen to explore what measures might nudge people to conserve energy. Past research has established that simply getting direct feedback on energy usage from a meter can improve conservation by 5–15%. In 2020, a randomized-controlled trial showed that adding appliance-level detail can improve savings by another 5% over aggregate household data. Detailed data probably help to dispel misconceptions about which appliances are using the most energy, says Andor. “I have the feeling that consumers are afraid of the prices,” he says. “But they are a little lost.”

Behavioural economist Madeline Werthschulte at the ZEW-Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany, would like to collaborate with natural-gas suppliers to learn more about the kinds of incentives — such as modest financial rewards for reducing gas usage — that could spur consumers to conserve more.

Studies of behaviour are complicated by the political measures that each country takes to ease the impact of the crisis, says Andor. “It’s a lot going on at the same time,” he says. “If you subsidize the energy prices to help consumers, then of course you have lower incentives for energy conservation.”

Will habits fade?

If past price spikes are any guide, new energy-conservation habits fade quickly, says Whitmarsh. “Consumers do cut back on energy, but when prices go back to normal again, their habits rebound,” she says. “There isn’t very much that endures.”

This time, it is possible that growing awareness of the impacts of climate change could change this pattern, she adds. For example, people who have been thinking of conserving energy for climate reasons might see the cost-of-living crisis as an impetus to make changes, and maintain them for longer than they would have done in the past.

Even so, energy conservation often requires sacrifice, and can be difficult to maintain. “I do not expect that this sticks for an average consumer,” says Andor. “People like comfort.”