Under President Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency is on the chopping block. Both the president’s proposed budget and his executive orders on cutting regulations would shrink the EPA. But of the 38 EPA programs that the Trump administration has proposed cutting, at least one is quite surprising: the popular — and voluntary — Energy Star program. It’s not a mandatory regulation, nor a “job killer.” We can only assume that it’s on the list because its strong connection with climate change mitigation. Let us explain.
Here’s what Energy Star does
Launched in 1992, Energy Star sets energy efficiency standards for appliances, electronics, and houses and buildings. But it’s not exactly a regulation. Businesses decide on their own whether to design products that comply with these standards.
The EPA claims that Energy Star has lowered consumers’ electricity bills by $430 billion (contrast this with the annual administrative cost of the program of about $57 million). This lower energy consumption has prevented 2.7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Wait, did you say “voluntary regulations”?
Why has the EPA created voluntary programs in the first place? Since its inception in 1970, the EPA’s task has been enforcing key federal environmental laws. Business and some labor groups have accused these laws — and the EPA’s enforcement of them — of being heavy-handed and overly rigid. Opponents allege that EPA regulations make U.S. firms uncompetitive, giving them incentives to relocate to countries with less stringent regulations. In this job-versus-environment narrative, federal regulations are blamed for the decline of U.S. manufacturing and the emergence of the Rust Belt.
Some of these complaints, according to research, were exaggerated. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, the EPA responded to these complaints with new types of regulatory policies, supported by both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.
Energy Star is an example of this approach, voluntary regulation. Instead of compelling business to adopt energy efficiency standards, it seeks to encourage them by promising recognition and consumer support. More broadly, voluntary programs seek to persuade firms to adopt pro-environment policies that go beyond the regulatory requirements. In return, businesses receive some sort of recognition — in this case, the Energy Star logo — that proclaims their environmental credentials.
The assumption is that consumers seeking to purchase “green products” — or at least, products that will lower their energy bills — will rely on such eco-labels to help make their choices. In this instance, according to an industry consortium, 83 percent of Americans say they know the Energy Star logo. Thus, voluntary programs like Energy Star help market environmental virtue. Consumers can use their purchasing power to reward energy-saving products. Take the case of dishwashers. The Energy Star website claims that “Standard-size dishwashers that have earned the Energy Star are on average 12 percent more energy efficient and 30 percent more water efficient than standard models.” Thus, the magic of the market works to protect the environment, ostensibly a Republican-friendly approach.
Yes, there’s criticism of Energy Star — but no calls for it to end
Because Energy Star historically relied on firms’ self-certification, it has had critics. A Government Accountability Office audit found instances of false claims. In response, in 2012, the EPA started having independent laboratories audit the products. Meanwhile, some industry groups have also complained that Energy Star’s requirements are becoming onerous. Some argue that it is unnecessarily linked to global warming; for instance, the Energy Star Emerging Technology Award goes to technologies that lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Some businesses have hinted that Energy Star should be moved to another federal agency, such as the Energy Department, which would arguably be more sensitive to their demands. But no business has advocated that it be discontinued or — as Trump’s budget suggests — be handed over to a nongovernmental entity.
So why cut Energy Star?
The regulatory approach of Trump and Scott Pruitt is complex and cannot be understood in terms of pro- or anti-regulation. Pruitt supports such strong regulations as Superfund site cleanup and brownfield development, which allows the redevelopment of contaminated and polluted properties. They even propose to provide $100 million to upgrade Flint’s drinking water system. Yet they want to kill Energy Star.
One explanation could be that the administration wants to show that Trump is slashing regulatory budgets and rolling back regulations. While there are procedural, legal and legislative problems in rolling back laws and regulations, Energy Star can be cut relatively easily — because it was not created through regulation.
But there’s an additional explanation: The administration wishes to discontinue anything purporting to mitigate climate change. If that’s the case, the move against Energy Star fits a pattern: gutting the Clean Power Plan, allowing coal mining on federal land, pledging to roll back vehicles’ fuel economy standards and reversing Obama’s executive order asking federal agencies to incorporate the social cost of carbon (putting a money value on the damage climate change will inflict) in program assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act.
If opposing climate action is the new litmus test, environmental initiatives will survive only if they are not overtly associated with climate change. City, county and state governments are already behaving as though this is true, investing in preparing for climate change but doing so under different labels. This is the new political reality that environmentalists and environmental managers will need to deal with.
Nives Dolšak is professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.
Aseem Prakash is professor of political science, the Walker Family Professor and the founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington.