EU trims its green ambitions

The electric toaster makes an unlikely instrument of citizen upheaval. The humble kitchen appliance has changed little since it was invented by Scottish scientist Alan MacMasters in 1883, but its breakfast function is fundamental enough to deserve a special carve out from European Union rules: if saving the world means redesigning a cherished century-old contraption, then the bread grilling device comes first.

Or at least that was how it appeared on November 9, when the European Commission dropped plans to make certain consumer goods more energy efficient, amid fears that it might appear like an intrusion into daily lives. While the proposal for the so-called Ecodesign Directive went ahead, several appliances were removed from its scope, including toasters.

The Commission’s First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, admitted that the environmental and economic benefits from toaster energy efficiency would not outweigh the potential negative publicity in seeming to interfere in cherished household affairs.

Other appliances will be covered in the plans, including electric kettles, hand dryers, lifts, solar panels, building automation and control systems and refrigerated carriers. If the scheme is agreed, future products will have to be made to consume less energy. But hairdryers, hot drinks vending machines and toasters are not on the list. “We want to put the products on the list that have the highest energy yield,” Timmermans said. “That is why kettles are on the list, because they are very high in terms of energy yields, and toasters are not on the list.”

All this is despite solid environmental and economic arguments for the proposal: the Commission said the rules could save a households €490 each year on energy bills and generate revenues of €55 billion for industry. They could help to deliver nearly half of the EU’s energy savings targets by 2020, and one quarter of the EU’s emissions reduction targets by 2020. Indeed, Timmermans hailed Ecodesign as vital for the EU’s commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change, and for initiatives like the Circular Economy Package.

They might also set the pace in global standards: other countries would both follow the EU’s lead and buy products designed and made in Europe. And, from a consumer perspective, Ecodesign could lengthen the lifespan of products, from improving how they can be repaired and recycled to keep them out of landfills and incinerators.

The International Energy Agency says Ecodesign standards generate at least €3 of savings for every euro spent. BEUC, the European consumer organisation, argues that Ecodesign can save consumers up to €330 a year. Coolproducts, a coalition of European environmental NGOs lobbying for ecodesign and energy labelling rules, said the decision to remove five products from the list would cost consumers €2 billion annually from 2030 onwards. Even industry lobbies back the Ecodesign policy: a letter, co-signed by eight industry associations representing the heating, cooling, refrigeration, ventilation, home appliance and ICT/consumer electronic sectors (ASERCOM, CECED, Digital Europe, EHI, EHPA, EPEE, EuroACE, Euroheat & Power) urged policymakers continue with the measures.

So why did the Commission hold back on some of the products? An internal Commission document revealed fears of hostile press coverage, noting that the EU has been “regularly accused of regulatory over-reach and intrusiveness in people’s daily lives and behavioural choices, when banning products from the market and limiting consumer choice.” It said “the strong negative publicity” raised the question of “whether the estimated but hardly evaluated economic benefits are worth the political costs for the EU and the commission in particular.”

Indeed, Ecodesign played a minor role in the Brexit referendum: earlier this year UKIP MEP David Coburn claimed that EU rules meant toasters had only “the power of one candle or something”, leaving his bread “all peely-wally” rather than nicely roasted. At the time, of course, there were no such regulations in place on toasters. And two years ago, the Which? consumer group urged Britons to buy powerful vacuum cleaners, saying they would be banned under the EU energy label scheme – a claim that the Commission denied.

Such complaints were not only heard in Britain. The right-wing Alternative for Germany party sells incandescent lightbulbs on its website, which Ecodesign standards have phased out, as a protest against the EU. After it emerged that toasters would not be on the list, German tabloid Bild heaped praise on Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for listening to popular concerns.

Timmermans was candid about the political climate. “We were very sensitive to what we’ve seen the media whipping up in the last couple of years,” he said, pointing to the two debates amongst the college of Commissioner over which products to regulate. “It took more time than if we did not have a backdrop of anti-EU campaigns,” he added. “We are no longer in this paternalistic world where the Commission comes up with plans and everyone says ‘Thanks Commission.’”

The EU takes pride in its trailblazing efforts to tackle global warming and improve the environment: without its example, and its diplomatic push, deals like the Paris Agreement would be almost unthinkable. Yet the Commission has trimmed its green ambitions in the face of perceived citizen outrage.

In fact, these measures are worthwhile. They help the environment while cutting home and office energy bills. By updating standards, the EU can keep pace with technological change, and spur further innovation. Ecodesign can and should be an easy sell. It is not a pointless meddle in people’s lives, but rather one of the EU’s most successful measures.

In changing times, we may see increasing signs of the Commission rowing back in other fields for fear of inciting a popular backlash, amid a febrile electoral mood in Europe. However, in the case of Ecodesign, the Commission could be offering a more robust defence.

Words Karen Massin, Leo Cendrowicz, Dennis Abbott & Diederik Peereboom (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos CC/Twalmsley

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