For the past 25 years, European governments have encouraged consumers to be more environmentally aware when buying fridges, washing machines, and other domestic appliances.

Now, they are also tightening their energy performance requirements, to force manufacturers to improve their products, and demanding clearer energy labels to help consumers.

Reducing household energy consumption is essential if countries are to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hit the UN target of limiting global warming to 1.5C.

“Within buildings, appliances are among the key contributors to [energy consumption],” says Radhika Khosla, associate professor at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford university. “It’s so embedded in everyday life for many people. Cumulatively, [appliances’ energy use] adds up to a lot.”

Energy efficient LED lightbulbs on sale in Ikea © Shutterstock / defotoberg

More than 120 countries now stipulate a minimum energy performance for appliances and require energy efficiency labelling, according to Jan Rosenow, director of European programmes at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy think-tank.

Labelling was first stipulated by the European Commission in 1994 for a number of appliances. Later, the energy efficiency rating system used on the labels was expanded, to range from “G”, the worst, to “A”, the best.

In March of this year, the EU simplified the energy labelling, as the top-three ratings under the previous scale (“A+, A++ and A+++”) had confused consumers.

Now, the labelling is stricter so very few products are initially able to achieve an “A” rating for energy efficiency — leaving scope for more efficient products to be included in the future, according to the Commission.

An energy efficiency label on a portable air conditioner unit in Paris, in 2019 © Hadrian/Shutterstock

These new ratings apply to appliances including fridges and freezers, dishwashers, washing machines, television sets, and monitors, as well as lightbulbs and lamps. They will be extended to other products in the coming years.

The EU has also banned the least efficient appliances under stricter requirements for energy use.

Taken together, these energy labels and minimum efficiency requirements will create energy savings equivalent to the energy consumption of Spain and Poland combined — saving consumers an average of up to €285 each per year, EC estimates claim.

Additional measures include requiring manufacturers to provide spare parts for up to 10 years after an appliance is no longer sold, to encourage people to use efficient appliances for longer.

More than 120 countries now stipulate a minimum energy performance for appliances
More than 120 countries now stipulate a minimum energy performance for appliances © Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

In the UK, the EU labelling and energy efficiency standards have already been passed into UK law.

Then, last month, the British government published plans for further measures to encourage manufacturers of household and business appliances — including lighting, refrigeration and computer equipment — to make them less energy-consuming and easier to repair.

Lisa Barber, head of home products and services at Which?, a UK consumer charity, says regulations should be strengthened so that energy efficiency labels also include information about the durability of a product and its ease of repair, to help consumers choose products that will last longer.

But how confident are policymakers that improving labelling systems will deliver energy savings?

Kadri Simson, EU Commissioner for Energy, told the Financial Times last week she had total confidence that the new labelling regime would help change consumer behaviour. “I am always confident in the impact of our policies, and in this case, we have data to back it up,” she said, citing an EU-wide survey in 2019, which found 79 per cent EU consumers said energy labels had influenced their purchasing decisions.

Kadri Simson, EU Commissioner for Energy
Kadri Simson, EU Commissioner for Energy © Francisco Seco/AFP via Getty Images

However, others are less sure. Some say the evidence of labels’ impact on consumers is more mixed — especially in developing countries where minimum standards of energy efficiency for white goods are less widely used.

Energy labels on appliances also differ in developed nations. In the US, for example, Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers says labels must give information on the annual operating cost of the appliance, its energy consumption rating, and a range of the highest and lowest operating costs for all similar models.

But there is growing evidence that a carrot-and-stick approach of combining energy labels for home appliances with mandatory minimum standards for energy efficiency can lead to big reductions in energy use.

Energy labels encourage or “pull” some consumers to make better-informed decisions about energy efficiency when buying products, argues Rosenow at the Regulatory Assistance Project. At the same time, minimum requirements for energy efficiency encourage product innovation and “push” the market away from the most energy wasteful products, he adds.

In countries with long-running policies on minimum energy consumption and energy ratings, appliances are now typically consuming 30 per cent less energy than they would have done otherwise, a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has found.

Bar chart of Units: terawatt-hours per year (TWh/year) showing Annual avoided electricity consumption from standards and labelling programmes in selected countries
Bar chart of % reduction showing Proportion of electricity consumption reduction from standards and labelling programmes in selected countries

“Energy labels on their own have an effect on consumer purchasing behaviour,” notes Rosenow. “But they are much more effective if coupled with regulation that gradually takes the least efficient equipment off the market. We have seen this with lightbulbs . . . moving from incandescent lamps to compact fluorescent bulbs to LEDs, which now dominate the market.”

Consolidating national energy labelling standards into international standards may accelerate the progress.

At the UN COP26 climate summit last month, 14 countries — including the UK, Germany, India, Brazil and Nigeria — committed to doubling the energy efficiency of four products by 2030: lighting, refrigerators, air conditioners and industrial motor systems. These product categories account for about 40 per cent of global electricity consumption.

Energy labels encourage some consumers to make better-informed decisions about energy efficiency
Energy labels encourage some consumers to make better-informed decisions about energy efficiency © Aif Riberio/Shutterstock

Combining labelling standards with other measures — such as subsidies or tax incentives on appliances with high energy efficiency — could also help, the IEA has said.

Technological developments, including an increase in “smart” appliances and homes gathering data on energy use, will also boost awareness of household energy efficiency and cut bills, experts say.

“A smart washing machine can automatically start when it receives a signal from the grid that energy cost is at its lowest level during off-peak hours,” points out Paolo Falcioni, director-general at Applia, a trade association for Europe’s home appliance industry.

A UK domestic smart meter showing how much energy is being used by a household
A UK domestic smart meter showing how much energy is being used by a household © Alamy

Still, experts admit that labelling needs common international standards, and to be combined with mandatory minimum energy performance, if it is to have maximum impact.

“[Energy rating] labels are really important, but they are important within a portfolio of minimum energy performance standards,” says Khosla of Oxford university. “In general, unless there are mandatory standards and [energy rating] labels they are unlikely to work as well.”

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