Government inertia on energy labeling hindering industry

Energy expert Alan Pears urges more government focus on reducing household energy consumption.

These days, consumers are demanding more energy efficient household appliances. Whether it is cleaner home entertainment systems or air-conditioners that no longer resemble the energy guzzlers of yore, "green technology" is the catchphrase of the moment. Unsurprisingly, manufacturers and governments seem to be responding with initiatives such as the fridge star rating system, the phosphorescent lights campaign and by making environmentally friendly computers more readily available.

But has all this really amounted to lower greenhouse emissions from Australian households? Alan Pears, Adjunct Professor at RMIT University for Energy and Planning, is not so sure.

"The things that are using a lot of energy in homes [today] are quite different to what they used to be," Pears said. Notable improvements have been made for traditional staples like the fridge which has become far more efficient, "but now we've got people sitting around their houses playing their computer games and surfing the internet".

Yet establishing a tangible sense of the nature of energy consumption in Australian households has proved to be problematic. "Part of the trouble is we don't have very good data to actually know."

To highlight this, Pears explains that the only published data for plasma TVs are for the 42 inch screens. Of these it is known that the highest consuming plasmas use 440 watts and the lowest use less than 100. "The point of it is that there's a massive difference."

The absence of proper energy labeling has meant that consumers, when faced with the array of TVs and computers on the shop floor, are unable to make informed decisions about their purchases, says Pears.

In his view, the Government's inertia stems from two beliefs. "First of all it is a belief that the market will sort things out. Second, it's a belief that the only barriers are financial barriers." If a green product is cost-effective, then the government reflexively expects to see market forces rationally bear that out for consumers.

In reality, Pears claims, the barriers are more numerous and lie elsewhere.

Most significantly, it ranks as a low priority on the government's environment policy agenda. "The powerful policy people in Government, like in Treasury, tend to dismiss household energy as a fringe thing - it won't do very much. It just hasn't been on their radar."

He identifies, too, the widespread "lack of information" available to consumers.

He blames the misallocation of government funds. A case in point is the Australian Greenhouse Office. "To do all its work on energy efficiencies on buildings and appliances was less than a million dollars, and here they are spending millions of dollars on renewable energy and clean coal technology".

Lastly, Pears speaks about the government's misguided reliance on regulations. Instead, "what we need is more powerful and comprehensive programs and certainly the experience overseas and even here when we've done so is that providing strategically targeted incentive programs encourages people to do the right thing," he says.

"If the Australian government had restructured the first home buyer's scheme so that the higher the star rating of your new house, the more money you got, then a lot of builders would suddenly be falling over themselves to sell really good houses because you would have given them a positive incentive and you would also be sending a signal to the home buyer that the government thinks it's a good idea as well, and you'll also be saving on your energy bill. Now that's the kind of thing that can transform the industry."

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