Lonely Hearts: Energy Efficiency seeks Binding Target and the Promotion of Sustainable Behaviour

Energy efficiency is a buzz word in the EU at the moment – everyone agrees it is the top priority, but why? what obstacles does it face? and what must we not forget in order to achieve the very significant savings energy efficiency promises?

  • If the European Union (EU) reduced its energy consumption by 1%, 50 coal plants and 25,000 wind turbines would not be needed.
  • Buildings consume 40% of energy used in the EU, 70% of which is for heating. The efficiency savings potential in our built environment is enormous, via widespread retrofitting of homes into passive and low carbon buildings, with decentralized and renewable energy sources.
  • This delectable video illustrates the benefits of low-carbon “active” houses, and was produced as part of the EU SEMS (Sustainable Energy Management Systems) Project in Weilerbach, south Germany, a project which is part of the bigger CONCERTO initiative (Cities Demonstrate Energy and Climate Policy Solutions).
  • Passive houses are built or retrofitted to be ultra-low energy, not using more than they produce, whereas active homes are designed to produce more energy than they consume. As the three little pigs have illustrated, this enables householders to save energy AND money.
  • In fact, economically speaking, investing in energy efficiency in Europe’s homes makes perfect sense – for every euro invested in the sustainable refurbishment of housing, 2 euros that would have been needed for the production of energy are saved.
  • The EU’s Energy 2020 targets “20-20-20” require 20% of our energy to come from renewable sources, a 20% greenhouse gas emissions reduction from 1990 levels, and 20% energy savings via energy efficiency, by 2020.
  • Meeting the EU’s 20% energy savings target would cut energy bills by €78 billion for European consumers and businesses annually by 2020, an average saving of €380 per household in 2020.
  • A 20% energy efficiency saving is equivalent to 14 of the proposed Nabucco gas pipelines, or the energy produced by 1000 coal plants and 500,000 wind turbines.
  • The EU is currently on track to miss its energy efficiency target by half. This is because, unlike the renewables and emissions targets, which we are on track to meet, the energy efficiency target is not legally binding on member states.
  • The European Parliament, on 15th December 2010, passed a resolution calling for the (at least) 20% energy efficiency target to become legally binding.
  • Hungary’s presidency of the EU will encompass an Energy Summit on 4th February 2011, with the Energy Ministers to adopt conclusions on ‘Europe 2020’ strategy and energy infrastructure priorities on 28th February.

Energy issues may be at the fore for the EU at the beginning of 2011,  but there are certain things that must not be forgotten. Talking about the benefits of something is not the same as making it happen. As the trajectory of the renewables and GHG emissions targets illustrate, and the European Parliament’s resolution recognizes, binding commitments are necessary for the success of the energy savings target.

Even more importantly, it must be recognized that improvements in energy efficiency only translate into energy savings when the energy efficiency gains are not reinvested in additional consumption, as  a recent article in the New Yorker – “The Efficiency Dilemma”, by David Owen – explains. If better insulated houses result in people using the same amount of fuel to heat the whole house instead of just the rooms they are using, then the environment doesn’t benefit. Similarly, as Owen put it:

“drivers who buy more efficient cars can expect to save thousands of dollars in fuel costs; but, unless those drivers shred the money and add it to a compost heap, the environment is unlikely to come out ahead, as those dollars will inevitably be spent on goods or activities that involve fuel consumption”.

Whilst advocating energy efficiency, we must remember that all too often “the potential savings are spent on doing more with the new, more efficient thing, or spending the the savings on something else”. To achieve real energy savings, and the consequent environmental benefits, improving energy efficiency must go hand in hand with promoting more sustainable behaviour and changes in our values of consumption.

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About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.
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