Key takeaways from the 1st International Sufficiency Summit

In this article, Adjunct Professor David Ness, UniSA STEM, University of South Australia, provides us with a detailed account of the main discussions and takeaways resulting from the first International Sufficiency Summit (May 4, Paris-Adelaide). As supporting partner to the event, the World Resources Forum will leverage these findings and ideas for continued discussion at the WRF’23 Conference ‘Rethinking Value – Resources for Planetary Wellbeing’, where sufficiency will have a dedicated thematic track.

With inspirational IPCC lead author and Sufficiency champion Dr Yamina Saheb, I was privileged to co-organise the highly important 1st International Sufficiency Summit held on 4 May. Supported by the Australian-French Association for Research and Innovation (AFRAN), the World Resources Forum (WRF) and Pacte Civique, and co-hosted by Sciences Po Paris and University of South Australia (UniSA), the Summit sought to raise awareness of sufficiency and extend the pioneering efforts of France in policy setting and practices to a global level. Programme and recordings can be found here.

The Importance

As Yamina emphasized in her keynote, “without sufficiency policies, the 1.5 degree target will be out of reach”. Not only does sufficiency have strong potential to reduce emissions by 40-70% in most sectors, but also has environmental, economic and social implications. Prof Marc Ringel noted that sufficiency has been seen as an ‘ugly duckling’ for much too long, and now needs to be recognised as a swan. Prof Anthony Elliott of UniSA set the tone: “climate change poses ‘existential’ risks of a cataclysmic nature, threatening human life, and we need to peak emissions by 2025: sufficiency is a lever to accelerate how we get there fast”. Ms Arancha Gonzalez Laya of Sciences Po, a Member of the Climate Overshoot Commission, advocated a ‘big dose’ of international cooperation in fighting climate change and establishing sufficiency policies, more interdisciplinary knowledge, and more public-private partnerships.

The 4 Pillars

Sufficiency is defined by the IPCC as “a set of policy measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land, water and other natural resources whilst enabling wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries”. Reflecting this definition, Yamina highlighted 4 inseparable elements or ‘pillars’ to support our understanding of sufficiency:

  1. Set of policies and practices: behaviour change is often seen as ‘sufficient’, but policy must come first to unleash social norms that will result in behaviour change of individuals e.g. Paris policies that support bicycling.
  2. Sufficiency focuses on avoiding upfront the need for resources: energy, materials, land, water and other natural resources. Not just energy as in case of France.
  3. Sufficiency is about social justice: it is important for protection of the vulnerable ones, and goes beyond present carbon issue to encompass cumulative and consumption past emissions.
  4. It focuses not only on constraining GHG emissions, but also not exceeding all planetary boundaries: although overlooked in IPCC climate modelling, it can potentially reduce emissions by 70%

Sufficiency in urban and human settlements

Moderating this session, I pointed out that growth in built floor area and roads, which exceeds population growth, is one of the main causes of rising emissions. Although positive, efforts to tackle climate change, based on energy efficiency, renewable and circularity, do not go far enough, are too slow, and fail to constrain growth in ‘consumption emissions’ ‑ including those embodied in materials and construction.

Therefore, we should avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water by building less or not at all in the Global North, making better use of what we have, adaptive reuse, and meeting needs not wants in fair way.

Paris experience

As Mr Yann Francoise (City of Paris) pointed out in this keynote: “although sufficiency (sobriété in French) was previously considered taboo, now even a liberal French President uses these words”. Yann added: “But how can we talk to everyone about sufficiency when 1m have no access to electricity and drinking water? Or when our inhabitants cut their own heating to avoid a huge electricity bill. Sufficiency is about Solidarity and Responsibility”.

The first priority of Paris has been to decrease demand for energy e.g. a local logistics platform to deliver goods by walking or cargo bikes in the heart of the city. Another initiative has been a Bioclimatic Urban Master Plan to create a “Green and Sponge City”, withdrawing asphalt and concrete pavements where possible.

What fundamental rethink is required for a shift in architecture, and what are the implications?

Prof David A. Barber, from US and now Head of Architecture at UTS Sydney, admitted to representing the world of excess, and the growth imperative, exacerbated by recent building booms.

Over the past 4 decades, sustainable architecture has been about efficiency, while providing the same basic houses, offices, schools etc: “We are so down the efficiency path that sufficiency presents a high – albeit necessary – bar to reach, with creative opportunities”.

Reuse/Retrofit/Renovation is easiest way to reduce embodied energy, and a basic sufficiency principle. As Lacaton and Vassal put it: “Never demolish, always transform”. But many buildings – e.g. sealed curtain wall towers ‑ are keyed to fossil fuel dependency, posing a huge challenge to make habitable with significantly less energy throughput.

A shift in design, and a shift in expectations for buildings and infrastructure, demanding less, and adjusting to different comfort conditions is an opportunity for designers – especially in over-developed regions of US and Australia, where “living according to the principle of sufficiency will make a world of difference”.

Can sufficiency be applied to the Global South?

While the Global North seeks to use less resources and to build less, Dr Sadaf Saeed examined the implications for the Global South where no such narrative exists and where mega transport projects – high in cost, resource consumption and carbon ‑ are common. She presented a case study of an elevated busway in the City of Lahore, Pakistan. While emulating a mega project in Istanbul, this failed to overcome the clogged roads.

Dr Saeed’s research showed that more localised and inclusive transport options, involving walkability and cycling, would have been less material, carbon and land intensive, and more cost-effective. The Global South was in dire need of more integration of transport with land use and local communities. This could be an entry point for sufficiency policies in the South, consistent with the social justice pillar.

Opportunities to extend the sufficiency narrative to China

Ms Huan Ni (Helen) heads Green Light-Year NGO in Shanghai, which spreads the sustainability message among China youth via education involving practical projects and sustainable lifestyles. As climate change will mostly impact the next generation, she advocates a greater voice for youth ‑ the Summit coincided with Youth Day in China!

Traditionally, China had the virtue of being frugal, and needed to maintain these values at a time of growing affluence and over-consumption. This required “big doses” of international cooperation, with further events such as the Summit, to educate and empower the next generation and especially to “walk the talk”. She described projects that addressed social justice, such as green cooling for the urban poor in Shanghai who were unable to afford air-conditioning.

Viewpoint of Lord Mayor of Adelaide

The Hon Dr Jane Lomax-Smith, Order of Australia, had recently advocated a shift from construction of more commercial real estate to social and affordable housing, especially via conversion and ‘adaptive reuse’ of the extensive vacant office space within the City.

She agreed with Yann Francoise about how the tide had turned. 25 years ago, when she had railed against demolition and 60% of landfill occupied by building and demolition waste, she was seen as subversive ‑ not only in undermining the development industry but also the whole economic model for our society. But the world had changed and the timing was now right, as people realise there is embodied energy in those buildings: “I realise it’s not just my love of heritage and architecturally important buildings that matter, it’s recognition that (using) every old building is a more sustainable development proposal than anything that could be put in its place”.

The Lord Mayor expected the development industry to be increasingly driven not just by legislation, but also by the imperative to recognise that their finance and the future of our society depends upon being economical with our sustainable and irreplaceable assets. The timing is right to find ways to convert buildings to alternative uses, rather than demolish. We have a housing crisis and in finding affordable rental accommodation. But given the time it takes to get to occupancy with new build, including the approvals and supply chain difficulties, the economic loss and the energy embedded often make new build unsustainable.

“I want to focus increasingly on recycling buildings and discussing problems we have. To find sustainable ways to support our economy away from just building…I am optimistic that the need to improve city vibrancy, coupled with the understanding of economics, will align and coalesce and make it more attractive for property owners and builders to recycle”.

Sufficiency in Clothes

Moderator Dr Katia Vladimirova pointed out that the sector had grown so much due to rise of fast fashion. Consumption in the Global North was insulated from what happens upstream and downstream. Most waste ends up in Global South, where it poses enormous problems. Katia added that personal sufficiency ceilings to stay under 1.5 degree temperature rise had been calculated. These were no more than 128 kg CO2e per person, whereas today’s richest use 700 kg. She asked panellists what it means to interpret limits for the fashion system, when people were bombarded with advertising to consume more. Should there be a limit on clothing in the closet? Dr Samira Iran replied that ‘minimalism’ and ‘decluttering’ could trigger customers to be aware of limits and change behaviour.

In his moving talk, David Yayra of Revival Earth, Ghana, highlighted the unjust fashion system, where Ghana tries to deal with the waste it didn’t create, with no practical support. A lot is non-biodegradable, and causes massive environmental damage: “Why is second-hand clothing here, on our shores, our land? We don’t need it!”. As many consumers fail to see these problems, Revival Earth has online education and courses to raise awareness and bring back a ‘repair culture’.

Despite growing production volumes in the EU, Dr Irene Maldini explained the resistance to public policy that imposed limits. Although the EU has a ‘Circular and Sustainable Textiles Strategy’ with 16 pieces of legislation, most deal with product durability, and are inadequate to lead directly to reduction in production volumes. None addresses the issue of production limits. She quoted some telling statistics: only 1/3rd of clothing is thrown away because of being worn out, but is disposed of for other reasons. Only 4% is bought to replace another item: “We consume clothing for other reasons and this needs to be acknowledged”.

Sufficiency for Nutrition

Speaking from Africa, Prof Lise Kirsten claimed that “food should be in the middle of the table”. It is mentioned only 12 times in IPCC Policy, despite cutting across all planetary boundaries and impacting on production, health, wealth and wellbeing. Talk of food is primarily about nutrition, although “food must always be safe, otherwise it is not food”. Africa will play major role in future food production, but lacks policies to ensure enough safe food and is often excluded from global food platforms. African food producers, suppliers and scientists must have a global role in safe, nutritious food.

Prof Olivier De Schutter warned that the world’s food situation is actually worsening for the 4th consecutive year, with 280m people facing acute food insecurity. Food was heavily dependent on cheap fossil energy and, when energy prices increase, so does the cost of food. Food production should be delinked from energy markets. Sufficiency means moving away from energy intensive food production towards ecological agriculture. Increased food specialisation was another major issue. While we have enough food, not everyone has access. Countries must first and foremost produce enough food to feed their own people, rather than focusing on specialised food products for global markets.

Markets respond to the purchasing power of the Global North and OECD countries, not to the needs of the most vulnerable. Food should not be treated as a speculative commodity, subject to traders and hedge funds and the vagaries and volatility of markets. As Mr Peter Erwin from Planet Tracker claimed: “the food system is effectively eating itself…it clearly needs systemic change”. It has a heavily biased structure, dominated by 1000 large companies, with 87% of profits captured by retailers and food service companies. Financial markets are at the cutting edge, and can be used to drive change. But they currently respond instantly to (unjust) price incentives rather than sufficiency, social justice and environmental issues.

In a moving and compelling address, Ms Lila Djellali highlighted the need for access to healthy food for the most vulnerable. EU food policy was now centred on over-production. While 10m tonnes of food was wasted in France, 10m people lacked sufficient food. Moreover, 1 in 4 children in Paris poor district don’t have access to breakfast, and 70% of students in France have only 50 euros at the end of each month for food. In addition, those who produce food at local level were not well paid and were locked into national and EU policies. More resources and policies are required to ensure local access to food. For example, Paris is establishing a social security fund for food, with open access for all groups.

Ms Tessa Avermaete (Global Alliance for Future of Food) also highlighted the challenge to move from policies that focus on more efficiency in production to those that ensure the food system (not just agriculture) is more sustainable and fairer, with the price of food reflecting the cost of production by farmers.

Ministerial Discussion

Although Sufficiency is a lot about EU, an acknowledged world leader in climate change, implications beyond the EU were also discussed in this session.

Mr Ciaran Cuffe explained the complex EU policy making process. Despite achievements, such as the EU Green Deal targeting a 55% GHG reduction by 2030, it was never enough e.g. it doesn’t deal adequately with the issue of vulnerable people, and “agriculture is not going anywhere”. However, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which focuses on retrofit and renovation, does mention sufficiency – “an important word in climate action”. All buildings are required to have an ‘A’ rating by 2050, with milestones for 2030 and beyond.

Hon Dr Susan Close expressed gratitude for the EU leadership in tackling climate change, while highlighting South Australia’s leadership in renewable energies. She expected that sufficiency policies would increasingly gain traction via a cooperative effort on developing a sufficiency ethic with the City of Adelaide. Commenting on food sufficiency, she disclosed that South Australia produced far more food than it used. The challenge of inequality of distribution requires inventive public policy.

The Minister concluded by saying: “…we are interested in having a cooperative effort across our jurisdictions in how we could work further in developing the sufficiency ethic and building that into the way in which we conduct all our industry”. Her portfolio covered climate change, environment and industry, and she sought to bring these together.

Ms Inês Costa brought a business perspective to the table. Although Sufficiency is part of business discussions, many people associate the term with poverty and it is not commonly used. She emphasized that business and industry should consider sufficiency strategy as ‘smart and intelligent’ due to: Laws of Thermodynamics that we can’t contradict; it stimulates innovation; the need to focus on change of mental models; and because it guarantees ‘resilience’ in the longer term.

To illustrate her point and sufficiency, Ms Costa used the metaphor of a set of piano keys. Imposing limits by the number of keys did not restrict our ability to create unlimited musical creativity and innovation. In the same vein, “we should stop thinking of planetary limits as constraints, but rather as guidelines, frontier conditions and starting points”.

Closing Remarks

In closing with Yamina, I highlighted that the Adelaide Lord Mayor and Ciaran Cuffe from Ireland had mentioned that “the timing is right” to pursue sufficiency policies. What loomed large for me from the various sessions was the fairness and social justice side of sufficiency. We heard from Mr David Yayra about the terrible dumping of clothing waste in Ghana, and the heartrending talk by Ms Lila Djellali about the 1 in 4 children in Paris poor district who are denied access to breakfast.

I gained encouragement from South Australia Minister, the Hon Dr Susan Close, who urged a cooperative effort towards a shared sufficiency ethic. In terms of local practical actions, I am keen to follow up and support our Lord Mayor’s ambition to convert vacant office space to social housing.

Finally, post-Summit, I wish to add some personal observations:

  • Overproduction by the Global North emerged as a common problem in the built environment, in clothing, and in food and nutrition, requiring policies to set limits.
  • Although financial markets play a crucial role, they often neglect the needs of the vulnerable and require reform to recognise equity and the environment.
  • Sufficiency is often viewed as requiring action by the Global North, but – as in the transport example ‑ may also have implications for countries such as Pakistan where it can enable more effective use of resources in meeting needs.
  • Within the 4 Pillars of Sufficiency, social justice loomed large but is often overlooked.

Comments from Participants

“The first International Sufficiency Summit…was a real success and a crucial event to push forward conversation around climate mitigation, energy efficiency and decarbonisation. Hybrid between France and Australia, this event gives thought for further bilateral collaboration” (AFRAN Team)

“I thought the Summit went incredibly well, and there were some really thought-provoking presentations. The technology worked brilliantly and even a fire-alarm on the French side didn’t derail things significantly” (Prof Jason Whittle, Dean of Research STEM, UniSA)

Reflections and further questions from Adelaide audience

  • Explore implications of Sufficiency policies on inequality and divide between generations, different socio-economic groups, and between the Global North and South.
  • Carbon price and carbon budget to promote sufficiency practice.
  • Finance and financial markets need to change and drive sufficiency.
  • How do we tackle: growth in floor area, roads, demand for buildings, stopping building?
  • Inner conflict! Our company survives from designing large transport projects, but want to be driven by sustainability
  • How realistic is the phrase: ‘never demolish but always transform’?
  • Putting fashion, food, sufficiency into climate change agenda in SA. Not just energy.
  • What would be the impact of sufficiency on the GDP and national economic models?
  • Is there a better word than ‘growth’? Renaming ‘growth’ and ‘profit’, where it comes from.
  • Defining and explaining sufficiency needs some work, and possibly some marketing help to get the message across, and make it not seem like a negative concept.
  • People aren’t afraid of change – they are afraid of loss. How do we frame ‘sufficiency’ so they don’t feel they are losing something?
  • Need more differentiation between sufficiency and general sustainability
  • Systems aren’t agile and we only have 7 years to move faster than we ever have before.

Reflections and further questions from social media

  • The idea of sufficiency forces us to ask ourselves “how much is enough?”
  • We can interpret sufficiency in the global fashion system in many ways: limits to consumption and ideas of buying less; limits to production volumes; limits to exports of textile waste to Global South that are directly linked to overproduction and overconsumption.
  • Only a third of clothing thrown out was actually worn out.
  • Loved the other two sessions, one on sufficiency in urban planning (“we don’t need mushrooming buildings!”) and another one sufficiency in food: 1 in 4 children in Paris poor district (where food is overproduced) do not have access to breakfast.
  • Why has sufficiency been overlooked or deliberately avoided for so long? One reason might be the difficulty in a one-size fits all measure, with some folks struggling to access basic necessities. Biggest obstacle might just be our cultural inclination towards overconsumption.


Thanks to all speakers and participants in the Summit, and those who helped co-organiser Dr Yamina Saheb and I make it happen, including: Prof Marc Ringel, EU Chair of Sustainable Development and Climate Transition and Ms Valeria de los Cavares of Sciences Po Paris; Associate Prof Ke Xing and Prof Chris Chow of Sustainable Infrastructure and Resource Management (SIRM), UniSA STEM; Prof Allan O’Connor and Ms Nancy Spork of Centre for Enterprise Dynamics in Global Economies (C-EDGE), UniSA Business; Ms Nathalie Simenel-Amar (AFRAN); Mr Emanuele Di Francesco (WRF).

Panel in Adelaide, Australia
Panel in Paris, France
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