Environmental damage used to conjure up pictures of car fumes and billowing smoke from heavy industry. We now understand that everything we buy and use has an impact on the environment. And that this impact happens all the way through a product’s existence, from its design, production and use, through to what happens to it when it stops being useful to its owner.
The government’s pledge to be the greenest ever is not a choice - it’s an imperative. There is no point in rebuilding the economy unless it’s a green economy: one that actively prevents waste and accurately reflects the value of our natural resources.
Energy efficiency and reducing the environmental footprint of products and services is a challenge is already understood and being addressed by leaders across society. The Green Alliance’s Pathway to Greener Products report, for example, is a pioneering piece of work.
And it’s inspiring to see the commitment and the ingenuity that’s being applied in the business sector.
I recently visited a plant of a famous high street chemist, and was shown how it is assessing the sustainability of its products, and using design to stop waste.
I found out about their efforts to reduce packaging. About a plant that creates plastic bottles out of recycled PET. About a project to use a factory’s waste heat and CO2 emissions to produce algae to be used in beauty products.
This ingenuity, backed by government and EU action, could design much of waste out of the equation. But we also need consumers to play their part.
At Boots I spoke to a team who had discovered that, for a product such as shampoo, the biggest part of its carbon foot print is not in the making of the bottle, or the transportation, but in the water heated when it’s being used by the consumer after the purchase.
How do businesses help consumers? And how does government help?
We need to keep researching the way people use products, and understanding why they do what they do. We need to get clear about how best we can influence behaviour, where efforts will be most productive. Because, despite the good work that’s already being done, doing “the right thing” for the environment is still a minefield of confusing, often contradictory information and advice. We may not be able to persuade people to wash their hair with cold water. But, using robust evidence - customer insight, as it’s called - we can help people start to use appliances in the most efficient way; and help both businesses and consumers move towards more environmentally sustainable lifestyles.
We must make it easier for consumers to make the right choices, through providing clear, straightforward information. Through energy labelling and eco-labelling, and by eradicating “greenwash” and making sure all green claims are trustworthy.
That’s part of government’s work. But what we’re here to talk about today is the setting of standards, and creating the right tools to test products against those standards.
Minimum energy performance standards and energy labelling are vital.
They get rid of the worst performing items, and encourage manufacturers to go for green options. Labelling then lets consumers choose the most efficient products.
We need to reduce global energy-related C02 emissions to half their current levels by 2050. The International Energy Agency says that energy efficiency improvements will make the single largest contribution to achieving this goal. In the UK, the Government is developing the Green Deal, a “game changer” policy to improve energy efficiency of domestic and commercial buildings focussing on the “fabric of the building” itself, for example improving insulation levels. But products such as appliances, consumer electronics, lighting, and the biggest consumer of them all: heating systems have a significant role to play too. In Europe the Ecodesign Directive covers these products which represent over 50% of the EU’s primary energy consumption - the original ambition was to save 10% of the EU’s energy consumption by 2020, thus going half of the way to meeting our overall target to cut energy use by 20%. And it’s effective: a recent study (the Ecofys-Fraunhofer report) highlighted the Ecodesign Directive as ‘the most effective instrument at EU level in energy efficiency policy’. In the UK, measures agreed so far under the Eco-design directive are expected to save emission almost 7Million tonnes of CO2 per annum and generate just over £850 million net benefits per annum to British householders and business users.
Next week, the transposition of the EU Eco-Design Directive into UK law will be complete. But standards need to be agreed and implemented, so our work in Europe continues.
Minimum standards can only come from Europe; and it is for Europe to implement them. The UK’s job is to persuade Europe - the EC, the Member States and European Parliament - to agree the most dynamic and ambitious standards possible, based on solid evidence. There have been delays in reaching an agreement on such standards over the past year or so. I’m looking forward now to a speedy resolution and the Commission bringing new impetuous in this area, particularly in the context of the revised EU Energy Efficiency Action Plan the Commission is developing.
These standards are not just about the environment, of course. They can generate big benefits to UK and EU industry; through savings on energy bills; by stimulating innovation - and competition. The UK is in a strong position here, on research and design if not actual manufacture. And, as other nations outside EU introduce their energy efficiency standards, the EU can really help its own manufacturers through ambitious yet achievable standards for Europe.
For these potential benefits to become reality and to ensure a level playing field for industry, we need effective monitoring, verification and enforcement systems to ensure that products comply with the minimum and labelling standards. This is something we take very seriously in the UK, and we are introducing a new range of tools such as administrative penalties and cost sharing through the transposition of the recast Eco-design Directive to ensure the standards are delivered and that there is level playing field for businesses.
We’re not just working with the EU. The USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, China and India all have minimum and labelling standards. If as an international community we are going to reduce carbon emissions through these means, we need to move towards international convergence.
Looking in to the future, the Eco-design directive has the potential to address more then just energy efficiency and I look forward to it addressing other environmental impacts, such as resource efficiency, recycled content and others, if the evidence show they are significant.
But Government’s work and influence is not just about setting standards. It’s also about leading by example as in our commitment to “the Greenest Government ever”. One of the best ways we can ensure a market for green goods is by using our own buying power, so through green public procurement and Government Buying Standards.
Reducing our impact on the environment is a huge and challenging responsibility.
It’s also a great opportunity for all sectors to flex their scientific, creative and entrepreneurial muscles and both lead and support the journey to a new green economy.
I look forward to us fully delivering the benefits of the Eco-design directive through the speedy agreement in Europe of ambitious yet achievable future implementing measures.