When science gets messed up with politics

Well-intended scientific support being messed up in political debate is a very common pitfall in the science-policy relationship. A perfect example, worth being mentioned in the teaching books, is the European Ecodesign Directive. That’s why I would like to write today about this very instructive story.

To understand it, we need to go back to the year 2008. Europe was about to host the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and in the run-up to it wanted to make an ambitious pledge for climate action. So European leaders agreed on what became known as the “20-20-20” targets, that is to reach 20% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels, 20% share of renewables in electricity generation, and 20% less energy consumption compared to 1990, all of this to be reached by 2020. 20-20-20 by 2020, this sounds obviously like an easy-to-communicate political target, not a scientific one. On a side note, the EU is on an excellent track to reach these targets, having overshot the emission reduction target already last year, while being on the right path with the renewables target. The energy efficiency target – in other words: decoupling energy consumption from economic growth – seems more difficult to reach by 2020 and this is precisely the target I want to talk about in the following.

Once the targets were adopted by the Heads of Government, the Commission had to come up with smart proposals on how to reach them. One of the most effective ways to reduce energy consumption is to insulate houses, i.e. to retrofit the existing building stock, given that 75% of the buildings in the EU are considered not to be energy-efficient. However, this is not a task to be carried out at the EU level. The EU might help by setting up funding programmes, but according to the subsidiarity principle the insulation of houses is something to be dealt with at local level. So what else could the EU do?

2000px-Energy_label_en.svgEnhancing the energy efficiency of household appliances quickly came up as an area in which the EU could act. Why? Because if each Member State would start coming up with different energy efficiency targets for industrial products, this would distort and fragment the common market. And one of the Commission’s key tasks is to be a guardian of the common market, so the need for action at the European level was evident. In addition, household applicances contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, the Commission came up with the proposal for an Ecodesign Directive, which was adopted by the European Parliament and the European Council in autumn 2009 with the exact title “Directive 2009/125/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 establishing a framework for the setting of ecodesign requirements for energy-related products”. It is important to highlight that the majority of the directly elected Members of the European Parliament as well as every single government of the EU Member States agreed to this Directive.

The Directive put a number of tasks on the European Commission, namely to organize a process in which for different groups of household appliances energy efficiency targets would be developed, with the aim to reach the agreed political goal of reducing energy consumption by 20% by 2020. In particular, Article 15 (4) of the Directive asked the Commission to come up with “implementing measures”, to be laid down as EU regulations, for which the Commission should

  • consider the life cycle of the product and all its significant environmental aspects, inter alia, energy efficiency.
  • carry out an assessment, which shall consider the impact on the environment, consumers and manufacturers, including SMEs, in terms of competitiveness — including in relation to markets outside the Community — innovation, market access and costs and benefits;
  • take into account existing national environmental legislation that Member States consider relevant;
  • carry out appropriate consultation with stakeholders;
  • prepare an explanatory memorandum of the draft implementing measure based on the assessment referred to in point (b); and
  • set implementing date(s), any staged or transitional measure or periods, taking into account, in particular, possible impacts on SMEs or on specific product groups manufactured primarily by SMEs.

The Directive asked the Commission to consult Member States’ representatives as well as interested parties concerned with the product group, such as industry, including SMEs and craft industry, trade unions, traders, retailers, importers, environmental protection groups and consumer organizations, and to come up with a working plan, to be updated regularly.

In its article 16 (2) the Directive also identified a number of implementing measures the Commission shall introduce by anticipation, namely “starting with those products which have been identified as offering a high potential for cost-effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, such as heating and water heating equipment, electric motor systems, lighting in both the domestic and tertiary sectors, domestic appliances, office equipment in both the domestic and tertiary sectors, consumer electronics and HVAC (heating ventilating air conditioning) systems.”

So let’s recap so far: political leaders agreed on a political target. The European Commission suggested a way to reach this target within its competency to ensure the functioning of the common market. Parliament and Council – following trilateral discussions – agreed to the proposal and gave a clear legal mandate to the Commission to act and asked it to do so in a participatory manner involving all the stakeholders.

At this point the scientists and engineers come in. As the policy officers in the Directorates-Generals of the Commission obviously are no technical experts for vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and hair dryers, they asked technical experts to help steer the discussions at the technical level and to come up with policy options, i.e. possible energy efficiency targets for each product group that were ambitious enough to reach the 20-20-20 targets, but also technically feasible. A number of working groups were set up, some chaired by the Commission’s own science service, the JRC, some by other research institutes or consultancies.

To provide an example, there was a study looking at how to make taps and showers more energy-efficient. This may sound funny at first glance, but of course there is a lot of potential for energy efficiency also in taps and showers. A look at the working group’s website, still online, reads: “Environmental, economic and technical information will be gathered, processed and used to form a common evidence base following the Ecodesign methodology. The aim of the study is to provide policy makers with evidence to assess if it is recommendable to take policy action, and if so, how to design a favorable mix of policy instruments. JRC will undertake independent, neutral, science-based research and apply its ability to strongly involve stakeholder experts in the research through a structured technical working group process. During the preparatory study, various occasions for wide consultations are foreseen with experts and stakeholders of manufacturers, supply chain industry, consumer organizations and NGOs. The evidence base uses available scientific information and data, adopts a life-cycle approach and engages participants to discuss the issues and develop consensus.”

The website outlines a process which is as open and participatory as it can possibly be. Also, and this is important to highlight, it clearly says that the process will “provide policy makers with evidence to assess if it is recommendable to take policy action, and if so, how to design a favorable mix of policy instruments.” Therefore, it is clearly designed as an open process. To assess whether to take political action or not and if so which one is not the job of scientists, but entirely up to the policy-makers.

So the scientists and engineers started to prepare studies for different product groups, following a working plan agreed between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council specifying at which particular product groups the Commission would look at and in which order. All of this was done in a transparent manner and the studies were made publicly available. A beautiful example is the final report on the energy efficiency of vacuum cleaners, which was coordinated by the consultancy AEA Energy & Environment (see here).

energy1The report follows a thorough scientific approach. It provides an economic and market analysis, studies consumer behaviour, provides a technical analysis of the existing vacuum cleaners as well as the best available techniques, and looks at the potential for improvement, leading to policy scenarios. All of this developed in a consultative process involving all stakeholders. Again, everything was done in a transparent manner and for the vacuum cleaner case there is still a website available detailing all agendas and minutes of meetings, comments received from stakeholders, draft and final reports.

So let’s recap again. Following the political agreement on the way forward the scientific community was asked to help developing policy options. It did so in a transparent and open manner, involving all stakeholders and came up with possible solutions. At this point the ball was kicked back to the policy-makers.

After the scientists and technical experts had done their job in each working group, they sent the resulting reports to the European Commission. The Directorate-General in charge of the file, in this case the DG in charge of energy policy, looked at the reports and following internal consultation in the Commission, e.g. involving the DGs in charge of environment, industry and the common market, made a political choice and came up with a draft regulation. In the vacuum cleaner case the suggestion was that all vacuum cleaners with more than 1600 Watt motor power should be phased out in 2015 and those with more than 900 Watt be phased out in 2017. This regulation was adopted by the European Commission and enforced in the Member States (obviously you cannot have 28 Member State parliaments voting on a very technical European regulation, possibly leading to amendments contradicting each other and fragmenting the common market, which is why the Commission was asked to take action in the first place).

vacuumDue to an unfortunate coincidence, the regulation on the ecodesign requirements for vacuum cleaners received the somewhat unlucky number 666/2013 and became one of the icons of EU-bashing. Immediately after its publication the regulation was attacked by the media. Headlines ranged from “Meddling eurocrats to ban supercharged hoovers as Brussels lays down new rules” (The Independent, Ireland) to “Brits say ‘EU sucks’ over vacuum cleaner ban” (CNN) to opinion pieces like “This vacuum cleaner ban is a reason to leave EU” (Derby Telegraph).

One might put this away as the usual reaction of EU-sceptical media on anything coming from Brussels, but the story did not stop there. The initial headlines were soon followed by headlines like: “The great vacuum cleaner stampede: Panic buying hits shops as deadline looms for Brussels ban on high-powered machines” (Daily Mail), “Vacuum cleaner ban: Britons clean out stores ahead of EU power limit on dust-busting machines” (Mirror), and “All Of Europe Is Panic-Buying High-Powered Vacuum Cleaners Before They Become Illegal” (Business Insider).

Instead of purchasing energy-efficient machines, people ran to the shops to buy the inefficient old models, probably under the assumption – mainly built up by populist media – that the energy efficient machines would not clean as good as those with powerful motors (which is nonsense as the one is not related to the other). This  argument was even more convincing than the prospect of a lower electricity bill thanks to more efficient household appliances. Instead of applauding the Commission for phasing out energy-devouring machines across Europe and following its duties as demanded by the Member States in the Ecodesign Directive, national politicians under the pressure of media and their constituencies went out criticizing the “eurocrats” for dealing with seemingly small issues (ignoring of course that most of them had waived their hand when the Ecodesign Directive was adopted in the first place). This reaction followed the popular scheme: if people like it, take the acclaim yourself, if people don’t like it, blame Brussels.

Interestingly, when the media debate heated up, politicians also came under pressure by industry, but from an unexpected angle: the European vacuum cleaner manufacturers were all in favour of the new Directive. This not only because they contributed via their involvement in the stakeholder consultations, but also because they saw the Directive as a tool to spur innovation, create a level-playing field in the common market and keep non-EU competitors with non-energy efficient products out of the European market. Vocal representatives of the industry included the CEO of a German manufacturer (“Vacuum cleaner manufacturers urge Cameron to back EU ban”) and Sir James Dyson (“Sir James Dyson backs EU directive on vacuum power rated above 1,600 watts” – in fact, Sir Dyson had even argued for a much tougher regulation).

The same game – science coming up with policy options based on an open stakeholder process, the Commission taking a decision based on the evidence, national politicians bashing the Commission amidst an outcry in the media – was repeated with most other proposals for energy-efficient appliances in households, including light bulbs, kettles, and coffee machines. The Ecodesign Directive with its very valid and important goals became unintentionally a roadmap for constantly feeding EU-haters with arguments why Brussels is supposedly meddling in everybody’s lives, thus becoming an icon of why citizens fell out of love with Brussels. Scientists and engineers – who just did their job as requested by policy-makers – received part of the blame for feeding an administration, deemed (in my view, unjustifiably) to be disconnected from people’s concerns. It is no surprise that one of the most important slogans in Jean-Claude Juncker’s campaign for becoming EC President in 2014 was his commitment to “lead an EU that is bigger and more ambitious on big things, and smaller and more modest on small things.” It is evident that this slogan was not least motivated by the experiences with the Ecodesign Directive.

Could scientists have done things differently? Obviously, the EU 20-20-20 targets, the Ecodesign Directive and its implementing regulations were all political decisions, made for a noble cause. Scientists provided the technical basis for them and developed options, but they cannot be made accountable for the political action. Still, science suffered a collateral damage, being seen as co-responsible for unpopular decisions. In my view, the involved scientists and engineers have done everything right. They have invested enormous efforts to provide the best possible evidence, in a broad consultative process.

What may have lacked were science advisers, being connected to both the political and scientific communities, who might have been able to spot and warn politicians and scientists alike that the process in the way it had been designed – despite all good intentions – was a recipe for PR disaster. They could also have warned scientists that they were embarking on a process that, although very technical at first sight, might become very political, thus requiring extra caution. Last, but not least, better communication and societal dialogue, involving all Member State governments who had ordered the “menu” in the first place, might have helped to get the public buy-in for an EU Directive, which despite all the controversies, is and remains one of Europe’s most outstanding achievements in the fight against global warming.


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