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24th Jul 2021

EU fixes own mistake on 'confusing' energy labels

  • An energy label on a washing machine in 2003, before the EU introduced the system with A+, A++ and A+++, which it is now abolishing again (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament has agreed on Tuesday afternoon (13 June) on a compromise deal with national governments that will simplify energy efficiency labels.

MEPs approved the agreement with 535 votes in favour, 46 against, and 79 abstentions. The outcome was broadly expected.

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  • MEPs in 2010 approving the labelling system, which they now say should be changed (Photo: European Parliament)

The new rules will see the green-to-red colour-coded scale return to a scale of A to G, with the most efficient products falling under category A.

Politicians from most political groups expressed support ahead of the vote, saying the change will do away with the confusing A+++, A++, and A+ labels.

Those plus-labels had been added in recent years to advertise products that, thanks to technological advancements, are even more efficient than those with an A-label.

However, political groups were much quieter about why the current system was designed this way.

What is not being said, is that the confusion faced by consumers over the past few years has been created entirely by the EU institutions themselves.

The A to G scale had existed in the EU for years, but the institutions decided to change it in 2010.

They wanted to give companies an incentive to produce products that are more efficient than those classified as A-grade, and decided that these more efficient products should be classified as A+, A++, and A+++, with the last one being the most efficient.

“There was a need to go "beyond A" to allow manufacturers to further compete by developing products that are more and more efficient and to show how much better they are for consumers who could then make well informed choices,” the European Commission said in an explanation of the new rules on 19 May 2010, agreed upon by the EU parliament and member states.

But politicians had been warned.

Environmentalist lobby group World Wide Fund (WWF) said at the time that the reform “would make A-grades accessible to products with low energy efficiency and confuse consumers”.

Consumer organisations also criticised the idea.

Finnish Green MEP Satu Hassi correctly predicted that the step from A+ to A++ would not feel like much of an improvement in efficiency, in comparison to the step up from B to A.

“It devalues the difference between the better energy efficiency performers – equivalent to replacing Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals with gold+, gold++ and gold+++”, Hassi said at the time.

Seven years later, the critics have been vindicated.

The vote on Tuesday on a compromise deal between the three law-making EU institutions (parliament, council, and commission), marks the end of a legislative process that started almost two years ago, when the EU commission proposed the change in July 2015.

The commission had proposed to go back to the A-G scale because it said that would “make it easier for consumers to understand and compare products”.

Ironically, that sounds a lot like the justification given in 2010 for the A+++ system.

Then, the commission said the “new label layout will be easy to understand for consumers”.

Energy commissioner at the time Guenther Oettinger – now budget commissioner – said the new energy label “will help consumers to save energy and the EU to honour its commitment on the reduction of CO2 emissions”.

What did we learn?

At a press conference in Brussels on Friday (9 June), ahead of the EU parliament's plenary week in Strasbourg, spokespersons of the major political groups were in no mood to look back.

EUobserver pointed out that the EU parliament had itself to thank for the confusion created around the A+++ rating, since a majority of MEPs agreed to the rules back in 2010.

But when asked if any lessons were learned, no one spoke up.

Only Daniel Koster, spokesman of the largest group, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), gave a comment – without answering the question.

“The new system will be more transparent and better understandable”, he said.

At the plenary debate ahead of the vote on Tuesday, Green MEP Claude Turmes said that the A+++ system was an idea from the industry, and that the reform will “make up for an error made ten years ago”.

Regulation

There will be other changes established by the reform.

One difference is that the rules will be laid down in an EU regulation, which is directly applicable to member states, as opposed to a directive, which first needs to be transposed into national laws before it becomes effective.

The new regulation also introduces a system to recalibrate the efficiency ratings.

The rating scheme will become more strict. For instance, if more than 30 percent of products in a specific category (i.e. washing machines) are classified as A-grade, some of the less efficient products will then be downgraded.

The same will happen if more than half of the products in a category have either the A or B rating – the lower performers will be moved into a lower efficiency rating.

This article was updated on Tuesday 13 June, 13:25, to include the outcome of the vote.

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