Less wasteful choices

Analysis of energy systems is traditionally split between supply (which happens in power stations, gas fields and so on) and demand (which comes from households, businesses and other energy users). Policy largely concentrates on the first half of this equation, aiming to ensure supply meets whatever demand arises. Energy users have historically had a passive role and little choice over how they fit in to this system. Almost all UK households are linked to the national electricity grid, and have no real say over which type of electricity technology supplies them. A few have chosen to switch to 'green tariffs', but these have not always in practice supplied energy from renewable or low carbon sources, nor necessarily stimulated additional investment in these areas.

On the one hand, citizens should have more choice over how their energy needs are met, but on the other it may be that most citizens (facing few real choices) do not particularly care, as long as the 'lights stay on'. Exceptions to this indifference arise when prices rise sharply, or where large energy supply infrastructure is visible as power stations, 'wind farms' and transmission lines. But as this chapter goes on to discuss (Section 10.3.3), households now have new choices, even in the area of energy supply.

In the case of indirect energy, citizens have wide choice and can use their consumer power to good effect, for instance by choosing goods produced from low carbon sources. However, there is still not enough information on how carbon intensive most goods are. Emissions from both direct and indirect energy use need to be reduced, and there is a strong case for removing some of the least efficient products from the market. For instance the government of Australia pledged in spring 2007 to become the first country in the world to phase out incandescent light bulbs and replace them with energy efficient alternatives, eliminating 70 per cent of emissions per bulb. Other countries including the UK, as well as the EU, have considered similar plans.

Another approach is to tax the use of inefficient products, and/or provide tax incentives for efficient ones. In the UK road tax rises with vehicles' emissions, and in some places 'gas guzzlers' also pay more for parking. In Europe there are also (rather slow) moves towards mandatory vehicle efficiency standards, with the EU planning to widen the Car Fuel Efficiency Labelling Directive. This will aim to 'incentivise consumers and producers toward more efficient vehicles' (EC, 2006a, p. 15).

White goods are already rated according to their energy efficiency, but there is a need to go further and address a whole range of other goods. Market trends in consumer electronics are fast moving, bringing new products to consumers on a regular basis. This can lead to shorter product working lives as consumers quickly move on to the next 'new thing'. In short, energy use in the home is as much a product of the social trends that influence our purchasing decisions as it is a function of the infrastructure that supplies and affects our use of energy. There should be a clear drive from governments to label all energy using goods, phase out the most inefficient ones, and to limit standby power consumption. The humble 'off' switch should return to the front of appliances so the aspiring 'green citizen' does not have to scramble around behind their furniture to turn them off at the wall.

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