In the field of governance for sustainability towards a low-carbon economy, government decision-makers are increasingly aware of their ability to improve economic and environmental conditions through local energy actions.
Acknowledging the importance of implementing meaningful interventions designed for specific areas, Italy has delegated on the regional level the preparation of REPs. However, to our knowledge energy planners in Italy do not take into consideration the relationship between energy consumption and socio-economic profiles from a multi-level perspective. Analysis of the evolution of energy demands coupled with socio-economic development requires complementing conventional energy analysis with the use of variables that are able to deal with economic productivity, as well as environmental pressure at different levels of analysis (Recalde and Ramos-Martin, 2011). Here we have applied a multi-scale integrated approach (MuSIASEM) to look at the metabolism of two regional socio-economic systems from an integrated perspective, with the specific purpose of providing useful information to support the development of effective local energy policies. By employing this method we have identified the main aspects and dissimilarities that characterize the socio-economic development and energy consumption of the richest northern-east region of Italy, Veneto, and the most developed southern Italian region, Abruzzo. First, we have seen that both regions show a positive correlation between energy consumption and economic development over time. Secondly, we have seen that, differently from other developed societies, such as Catalonia in Spain, the two regions show that the increase in energy consumption was driven mainly by a progressive capitalization of the productive sector. Thus, the two regions appear to perform quite similarly. However, at lower hierarchical levels and with reference to the different sectors, we have identified differences. As one of the richest regions of Italy, Veneto has shown better performance than Abruzzo, with higher economic labour productivities of the productive sectors (€/h) (Figure 7). However, this aspect was not coupled with energy efficiencies (i.e. the value added generated per MJ of energy consumed), especially in relation to the agricultural sector. In this sector, the increase in labour productivity over time has been linked to a decreasing efficiency in the use of energy. This result is particularly worrying if we consider that the agricultural sector is generally the most dependent on the consumption of oil products, which are expensive (see Figure 5), with consumption in Veneto representing approximately 64% over total consumption of all energy sources. By contrast, the services and government sector was the most competitive in terms of labour productivity and energy efficiency. However, if compared with one of the most dynamic regions of Spain, Catalonia, Veneto shows very low GDP growth rates, together with a moderate growth in population. These two aspects characterize not only the Veneto region but the Italian economy in general. In this situation, the implementation of eco-efficiency strategies to reduce the energy dependence of the productive sectors (and therefore reducing production costs), together with the use of a larger fraction of renewable energy sources, especially in agriculture, should be seen by the Veneto government as a unique opportunity to enhance the competitiveness of the region and stimulate its economy.
For Abruzzo, the lower competitiveness of the productive sector as compared with Veneto, is also associated with a decreasing trend in energy efficiency for all the different sectors (see Figure 8). This result indicates that, even if Abruzzo has recently shown encouraging economic results as compared with other southern Italian regions, its development is not sustainable in the long run in terms of eco-efficiency. In the light of the energy reductions that the regions have to meet by 2020, Abruzzo will probably require structural changes and huge investments in all the productive sectors. Thus, while Veneto should consider a moderate increase in the energy efficiency of the productive sector in general, and of the agricultural sector in particular, in the case of Abruzzo larger structural changes and investments are needed for all the productive sectors. In the light of our analysis and given the imbalances in Italian development, we argue that the Italian Government should put more effort into developing specific measures to support the achievement of eco-efficiency goals for the less developed regions, necessitating huge restructuring interventions, such as in Abruzzo.
By employing the MuSIASEM approach we have shown how the socio-economic evolution of a particular system, coupled with its energy consumption, can be analysed from an integrated and multi-level perspective. This kind of analysis has been particularly useful here in highlighting dissimilarities in the eco-efficiency and socio-economic development of two distinct Italian regions, as well as in identifying potential local key barriers to the achievement of future energy targets. In future work, the MuSIASEM approach can be applied to all the Italian regions to provide a comprehensive picture of the socio-economic and biophysical characteristics of Italy in order to discuss energy actions and scenarios.