The Government has been under pressure for many years to use central government's massive purchasing power - running to around £13 billion per year - to secure environmental improvements by specifying greener products.
In an apparent step change in practice, the Environment Department and the Office of Government Commerce published procurement guidance in late October specifying minimum environmental criteria which all Departments must now meet (ENDS Report 345, pp 22-26 ).
The guidance identifies a number of "quick wins" for certain product groups. All PCs and monitors must be certified to the Energy Star label. Developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the label was adopted at EU level in 2001. It sets minimum requirements for energy consumption for a range of office equipment, including PCs, monitors, printers and faxes (ENDS Report 301, pp 48-49 ).
The US EPA and EU Energy Star Board, which includes representatives of governments, environmental, consumer and business organisations, is developing new criteria for monitors. But several board members are unhappy about the apparent lack of ambition in setting tough performance criteria.
The current criterion during sleep mode is 8W or less. The draft criterion would tighten this to 4W by November 2004 and 2W by November 2005. However, according to the EPA's own research, almost 90% of a recent sample of 87 monitors already meet the 2004 standard - while 57% meet that for 2005.
The board is also proposing to introduce a new limit for energy consumption during "on" mode and a tighter limit for "off" mode. But 49% of models already meet the draft 2004 criteria for all three operating modes.
Jean-Philippe Denruyter, WWF's representative on the Energy Star board, said that while the group supports the label, the draft standards for monitors were "really quite weak". "The working plan for the Energy Star programme specifies that criteria should be set at a 'very challenging level' so that only 20 to 25% can achieve it.... It is not supposed to be a minimum standard," he said.
Some countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, are also unhappy. The Austrian Energy Agency, for example, claims that the Energy Star standards for all office equipment are "obsolete", with 80% of equipment supplied by major manufacturers in the Austrian market in compliance.
IBM's Reinhard Hoean, who represents the European ICT Association (EICTA) on the board, said that having an "elite" label, such as the EU eco-label, which only a few products could achieve had been shown to be a failure because of poor take-up by companies. The main aim of the Energy Star programme was to save energy, and this could best be done by setting relatively modest criteria which more manufacturers could meet.
Mr Hoean also argued that the 2005 levels would effectively ban cathode ray tube monitors. Although liquid crystal display monitors will be able to meet the criteria, they currently cost up to twice as much, so demand for CRTs is expected for some time.
He also argued that without an Energy Star for CRTs, there would be no information for consumers wishing to buy an "energy-efficient" model.
The UK's list of "quick wins" may be revised to include other standards for PCs and monitors such as those laid down by the EU eco-label, which covers other impacts such as recyclability, or the Swedish TCO label which includes health and safety issues (ENDS Report 338, pp 35-36 ). The list will also be expanded to include new product groups such as printers and photocopiers. The Energy Star programme will revise its criteria for these within the next year.