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Beyond technical energy efficiency: the insights of societal metabolism and social practices theory
Technical efficiency indicators play a major part in sustainability policy. These indicators cannot handle the complexity of activities of modern societies, which are integrated and organized across different levels and scales. Moreover, they miss social and economic aspects. Sustainability issues require a capacity of handling information beyond the reach of reductionism which is typical of traditional scientific disciplines. While lip services are paid to this statement, we continue to observe that scientific evidence used to inform current sustainability policies lacks an adequate semantic and quantitative integration across governance silos: transdisciplinarity. This is the case of European policies on energy efficiency, which are carried out in an ineffective and even contradictory manner. In fact, the technical question “what is more efficient?” is only meaningful if we can provide an uncontested agreement of its semantic context depending on the consideration of non-technical issues. What is the goal of the analysis? What does mean “energy efficiency” of households if we only analyse consumption without considering equity issues? Can we change the definition of “energy efficiency” of a technology (a more efficient refrigerator can become bigger in time: Jevons paradox) to the “energy efficiency” of a function (e.g. commuting, that can be improved by sharing technologies providing the same service)? Is it possible to have an analysis of “energy efficiency” capable of reducing energy poverty and meet the SDGs? The concepts of metabolic pattern of social-ecological systems and social practice theory provide a new framework to generate a systemic contextualization of the analysis of human activities and their energy consumption. They allow an integrated analysis of the factors defining the expression of structural and functional elements associated with typologies of practices in society. This association requires: a social agreement on the meaning of the practice: the usefulness of the goal to be achieved; the accessibility of the required inputs: technology, energy, other required inputs; and the coordination of the practices based on their priorities and the existing knowledge. Both priorities and knowledge have to be continuously adjusted and adapted. Following these ideas, the MuSIASEM (Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecosystem Metabolism) framework has been used to generate a quantitative analysis based on the end-use matrix. In this way, the analysis of “efficiency” can be transformed into a multi-scale and multi-dimensional study of performance in which several relevant factors are considered simultaneously. We present results obtained in two EU projects (EUFORIE and MAGIC) of a study of the energetic performance of the household sector inside the urban metabolism of Barcelona. The results show that it is possible to generate a more effective characterization of the energy performance of households, abandoning the simplistic notion of energy efficiency.