Europe as counterweight to tragedy of the commons

November 12 2010

I didn’t get chance to take any photos at the Ecodesign For Better Products meeting I went to yesterday, which is a shame, because some interesting things came out of it.

A bit of background first – the EU Ecodesign Directive, which regulates the manufacture of ‘energy related’ products from a manufacturing perspective – is due to transition into UK law on 20th November. It’s a revised version of the law which covers traffic light energy ratings on white goods, extending it a range of other products (eventually around 80% of all ‘energy related’ products, which is quite a broad spectrum) and including a framework for design guidelines that goes beyond mere energy efficiency.

It’s dry, bureaucratic, completely over researched and – at the same time – under-resourced, virtually invisible to the public, been held back by delays, too reliant on voluntary action (imo)  and still doesn’t come close to helping Europe reach its carbon reduction targets, let alone meet the expectations of green activists (Greenpeace and the Coolproducts for a Cool Planet campaign have been instrumental in applying pressure for this). It’s also been described to me as ‘the last ditch attempt to do something before it’s too late’. After the anti-climax of WEEE and ROHS legislation – which have huge loopholes regularly exploited – some green campaigners see this as the last chance for the European Union to actually do something.

The conference did give rise to my favourite description of the EU ever. Matthew Spencer, of the host organisation Green Alliance, said that this is exactly the kind of “tragedy of the commons issue that the EU was created to tackle”.

A ‘tragedy of the commons‘ is a phrase not used often enough in discourse these days. It’s when everyone acting in their own best interests create a situation to the detriment of all – classically described with the example of sheep grazing in a meadow. If you and I are both shepherds with access to a particular meadow, the analogy goes, we both know that overgrazing the land will destroy its fertility. However, if one of us decides to move away from the meadow and the other doesn’t, the one who stays gets extra grass. If we can’t come to an agreement acting in our mutual interest, the chances are we’ll both stay on the meadow until it’s feasted barren. Tragedy of the commons appears, naturally enough, in game theory.

It’s easy to forget – in all the hysterical debates the tabloids engage in about Europe – that this is its raison d’etre. In this case, the chances of any one country disadvantaging its manufacturing base by imposing stricter environmental legislation than the others is unlikely. Climate change is already happening and inevitable, but only a centralised effort is going to change consumer behaviour.

On which note, the phrase ‘edit consumer choices’ came up a lot yesterday, which sounds terrifically Orwellian, even when it applies to something which, on the whole, appears to be from sound motives.

I’m not entirely sure what was actually achieved yesterday – it was a good debate, but there still seemed to be a lot of divisions about the usefulness of the Directive and the direction it should take after its next revision in 2012. Some manufacturers, like Dyson, said it didn’t go far enough in providing legislative powers. Others, like Boots, that voluntary agreements are best. The split is that unless there are strict rules rigidly enforced, nothing will ever get done – on the other hand, companies like Boots and B&Q have pushed forward quite impressive internal schemes off their own back.

Personally I think it’s obvious why the companies that are most exposed to consumers have better voluntary codes, because they need to be seen to do something. As we only buy one vacuum cleaner every god-knows-how-many-years, the chances are that Dyson’s competitors don’t see environmental scores as important to their customers.

By far the most interesting thing was that the EU representative, Marie Donnelly, sounded genuinely surprised at the current UK government’s commitment to this particular process, saying it ‘exceeded expectations’. Also, Lord Henley, the DEFRA spokesperson, gave this commitment:

“We are facing fairly severe cuts in DEFRA,” he said, “The prime minister has made it clear that tackling debts is the first and primary job of government, and we have to tackle that, but we will not allow that to interfere with the service we deliver on (this) particular point.”

I wonder if those words will come back to haunt him?

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