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.

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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


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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.

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

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