Most commentators expect improved energy efficiency and reduced energy demand to provide the dominant contribution to tackling global climate change. But at the global level, the correlation between increased wealth and increased energy consumption is very strong and the impact of policies to reduce energy demand is both limited and contested. Different academic disciplines approach energy demand reduction in different ways: emphasising some mechanisms and neglecting others, being more or less optimistic about the potential for reducing energy demand and providing insights that are more or less useful for policymakers. This article provides an overview of the main issues and challenges associated with energy demand reduction, summarises how this challenge is ‘framed’ by key academic disciplines, indicates how these can provide complementary insights for policymakers and argues that a ‘sociotechnical’ perspective can provide a deeper understanding of the nature of this challenge and the processes through which it can be achieved. The article integrates ideas from the natural sciences, economics, psychology, innovation studies and sociology but does not give equal weight to each. It argues that reducing energy demand will prove more difficult than is commonly assumed and current approaches will be insufficient to deliver the transformation required.