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News 10 March 2021

Getting to net zero: product policy

by Sophie Shnapp, Jack Wilkinson-Dix and Emilie Carmichael

The world is currently facing interlinked climate and biodiversity crises, with immediate action required to minimise the negative consequences. The products we all consume and how they are manufactured and disposed of play a significant role in either the protection or destruction of our climate and ecosystems. Human-made materials now outweigh Earth’s entire biomass – the production of concrete, metal, plastic, bricks, consumer products and asphalt are greater than the mass of living matter on the planet. A report by World Economic Forum (WEF) notes that carbon emissions from production and use of electronics will reach 14% of total emissions by 2040, one half of the total emissions from the global transport sector. The policies that exist on product standards have proven to have positive effects, reducing the environmental impacts of the products we use and saving consumers money, with little negative impact on people in terms of cost or performance. We now need to go further in our pursuit of a decarbonised world.

A global solution: circular economy and product policy

It will be impossible to reduce emissions to zero by 2050 with our current linear approach to production and consumption (make-use-dispose). Globally, each year, there are 100 billion tonnes of materials entering the economy with only 10% being recycled or re-used. This puts a tremendous strain on global systems and pushes us outside of planetary boundaries. We must rapidly move to a more circular model of production and consumption that sees products being made to higher standards, lasting longer, being repairable and easily recyclable, and being produced, as far as possible, with sustainable raw materials and renewable processes. This must be a priority in the UK and globally. This circularity work is something we have championed in our work in energy access in the Global South, through our collaborations with academia,  international trade associations focused on off-grid renewables and the promotion of international business model innovations in circularity. The UK Climate Change Committee has recommended in its recent sixth carbon budget that by 2050, the longevity of electronics will need to increase by 120% with a 30% increase in longevity by 2025.

Electricity production is expected to increase by 60% by 2030 globally due to increased use of equipment, appliances, lighting and other devices, as well as the electrification of transport, heating and industrial processes. This poses a challenge for governments around the world to maintain or create a stable supply of electricity (with an ever increasing demand) while simultaneously decarbonising. However, there is a solution to this increasing electricity use, and most of the technology has already been researched, developed and is market-ready: energy-efficient products that deliver the same performance but require less power to operate. The need for efficient equipment and appliances is greater than ever, as they hold the power to lower energy costs, enhance energy security, expand energy access, reduce energy poverty and reduce harmful emissions.

The economic impacts of increased energy efficiency are staggering: only a 10% reduction in electricity consumption by 2030 would save consumers $350 billion; savings in material costs could be worth up to $630 billion per year by 2025 in European manufacturing sectors; and we could see $500 billion of spending on energy efficient products by 2035.

Consumers should be able to easily tell which products are well-made, easily repaired, have had less of an impact on the planet, and will be efficient and cheap to run. This can be achieved with better labelling that takes account of these features and also offers consumers the opportunity to learn more if they choose. Manufacturers should be supported to make the necessary changes and market surveillance undertaken to ensure that products are being produced to the correct standard and customers are being protected.

Positive movements in product policy

Since 2019, the EU Ecodesign Package has generated measures to improve energy efficiency, repairability and recyclability of household products. Last year saw the publication of the EN4555X standard series, including horizontal standards EN 45554 for the ability to repair, reuse and upgrade energy using products and EN45552 for the assessment of the durability of energy related products. These measures should ensure a market transition towards more sustainable products. Energy Saving Trust is a member of ECOS, the international NGO advocating for environmentally friendly technical standards, who were instrumental in the process of drafting these measures.

Now that the UK has left the European Union (EU), there is the opportunity to go further than even the recently updated EU standards. The UK Government showed a desire to do this in a 2020 consultation, but their response published in March 2021 confirmed that, for now, they intend to align with the latest EU standards. However, there are promising signs in the 2020 consultation that the government could go further:

“The feedback provided by stakeholders in this consultation will supplement the evidence gathered by our recent Call for Evidence and, alongside the UK Energy-related Products Policy Study will shape our future policy framework. Our aim is to develop and publish our world class products policy framework in Spring 2021. This was recently announced as part of the Prime Minister’s ten point plan for a green industrial revolution.”

An ambitious package of measures that helps support the transition to zero energy and incentivises the production of quality products that do less harm to the planet should be adopted as soon as possible. There is public appetite for this approach through the Citizen’s Climate Assembly, with 91% of participants being in favour of greater resource efficiency and standards, as well as greater repairability and sharing of products. Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan on a green recovery also touched on these issues, stating that the government will: “push for products to use less energy, resources, and materials, saving carbon and helping households and businesses to reduce their energy bills with minimum effort.”

In many ways, we are beginning from a running start, with several positive product policy case studies to draw on over the past few years.

Reflections

The good practice case studies and policy movements described above showcase the importance of a package of product policies to ensure holistic implementation, consumer awareness and market penetration of efficient products. It is equally important for all market stakeholders to come together to ensure product policy is at the forefront of their actions and consumer behaviours. As all stakeholders will benefit from efficient, durable and repairable products, they should be at the heart of all action plans and decisions.

It is clear that in order to transition to a product efficient world, we need the right policies in place. A holistic package of policy measures should include regulations, standards, labels and certification, consumer information, consumer engagement and targeted investment. A suite of policies that supports the UK to decarbonise could include the following:

Standards

  • Eco-design requirements or regulations – for high quality, energy efficient and durable products that are easy to repair and disassemble.
  • Standards – on all carbon-producing products, particularly on the right to repair and material efficiency standards related to construction materials.
  • Endorsement, verification and certification of products – to highlight ‘best in class’ products and services to consumers while remaining impartial. This was the approach taken through the previous UK Government-funded Energy Saving Recommended Scheme, which ran for 10 years and covered 37 different product categories, including appliances, consumer electronics, heating, insulation, glazing, IT and lighting. Energy Saving Trust continues to lead work in this area through the TopTen and HACKS programmes.

Consumer engagement

Repair and resource efficiency

  • Legal guarantees and burden of proof on producers – to be extended for the lifespan and repairability of products.
  • Removal of legal barriers to repair (eg restrictions owing to copyright).
  • Mandates for manufacturers to ensure the availability of repair, professional maintenance information and support for independent repairers.
  • Subsidies (eg VAT reductions) on high-quality, repairable goods produced in resource efficient ways as well as on recycling processes and repair services.
  • Investment in research and development, capacity building and the supply chain.

The overarching goal of a package of measures should be to make sustainable and efficient products the norm, empower consumers, reduce waste and energy usage, and make circularity work for people, cities and regions. This policy package should focus on sectors that use the most resources and produce the most carbon emissions, including electronics and IT, batteries and vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles, construction and buildings. We must decarbonise by 2050 and we have a proven and easy to implement solution in the product sector that can reduce carbon while empowering citizens: a package of product policy measures.