Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Is energy efficiency effective?

Adelina Marini, August 5, 2009

This question is being discussed largely in the media in the US because of the large part of the stimulus package, designated to energy efficiency. In an opinion in the Washington post, the program researcher in environmental history and policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Center for Contemporary History and Policy in Philadelphia Gwen Ottinger writes that the already famous "cash for clunkers" programmes, aiming to stimulate consumers to make major purchases in the name of the environment, might appear to be more harmful. For example, the programmes for appliances encourage consumers to replace their washers, dryers and refrigerators with new models that meet efficiency standards set by government agencies.

The idea is that from those programmes both economy and environment could benefit because consumers' increased spending helps manufacturers and retailers while in the same time increase efficiency and decreases the usage of fossil fuels and, therefore, lead to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But according to Gwen Ottinger even new cars or appliances to be more effective than the old once, the only act of replacement has its own environmental price which has not been calculated in the stimulus package of the government.

The manufacturing of a new car, a washing machine or a refrigerator requires energy consumption and other resources. Not less important is the issue with the deposition of the old appliances and cars as garbage - something that requires more from the stimulus packages but also has environmental value: it takes additional energy to shred and recycle metals; plastic components often cannot be recycled and end up as landfill cover; and the engine fluids, refrigerants and other chemicals essential to operating products end up as hazardous wastes.

That is why Gwen Ottinger writes that if policymakers sincerely want to use stimulus money to further environmental goals, they need to look past narrow definitions of efficiency, incorporate environmental analyses of product lifecycles from manufacturing through disposal, and refuse to broadly equate "old" with "obsolete." Only then can they hope to craft policies that will serve both the economy and the environment.