© 2018 The Author(s). Low-carbon energy transitions aim to stay within a carbon budget that limits potential climate change to 2 °C - or well below - through a substantial growth in renewable energy sources alongside improved energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage. Current scenarios tend to overlook their low net energy returns compared to the existing fossil fuel infrastructure. Correcting from gross to net energy, we show that a low-carbon transition would probably lead to a 24-31% decline in net energy per capita by 2050, which implies a strong reversal of the recent rising trends of 0.5% per annum. Unless vast end-use efficiency savings can be achieved in the coming decades, current lifestyles might be impaired. To maintain the present net energy returns, solar and wind renewable power sources should grow two to three times faster than in other proposals. We suggest a new indicator, 'energy return on carbon', to assist in maximizing the net energy from the remaining carbon budget.