The top-runner approach is a product-related environmental policy approach aimed at the most environmentally friendly or resource efficient and energy efficient technology within a certain product group penetrating the market.
The top-runner approach was first implemented in Japan. The best available product on the market is declared standard (e.g. water consumption of a washing machine for a 5kg load, energy consumption of a TV set) which has to be met by other products of the same group within a certain time frame (e.g. 5 years). Products which fail to meet the standard within the specified time frame can no longer be placed on the market.
The top-runner approach is intended to promote technical progress on the market (of a particular country or region) and accelerate the penetration of particularly environmentally friendly products. External suppliers to the market are forced to meet the same standard, thereby preventing the emergence of international distortions of competition to the detriment of domestic suppliers. The basic assumption of the approach is that there is a fundamental shift from standards based on average performance to high standards. The approach is an incentive to gain a competitive edge by developing best technology products.
More than fifty countries have currently introduced minimum efficiency standards. Moreover, the top-runner approach includes additional implementation instruments, thus allowing for different forms of implementation in practice. The EU, for instance, has a mix of instruments made up of minimum efficiency standards (Ecodesign Directive), mandatory energy consumption labelling and voluntary environmental labelling. These instruments also have a bearing on the requirements for public procurement.
Since 2007, the German government has been advocating a top-runner approach at EU level to increase the energy efficiency of products (decisions taken in Meseberg on key elements of an integrated energy and climate programme). According to the decisions of the Federal cabinet of June 2011 on the energy transition, the ambitious continuous development of the top-runner approach is the key instrument for increasing efficiency in products. The Federal Environment Ministry and the Federal Economic Affairs Ministry have published a joint concept paper with specific proposals on how to improve and further develop the top-runner approach at EU level (see further information). The key elements of the paper are:
- Energy efficiency standards must, more than in the past, take the most efficient products of a group as reference.
- Best available technologies which serve as benchmarks must become more binding. This means that ecodesign implementing measures should not only show the efficiency value of the most efficient product, they should also indicate that it is the target value for the next minimum efficiency standard. This will ensure that benchmarks serve as a base value for defining the new standard to be set following each revision.
- Energy consumption labelling must be swiftly implemented and extended to other product groups.
- On 31 October 2011 these proposals were forwarded to the responsible EU Commissioners. The proposals have since been supported by other member states such as France, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands. They form the basis of the position Germany will maintain on the implementation and development of the EU framework directives on ecodesign and energy consumption labelling.
The Federal Environment Ministry is in favour of using the top-runner approach not only to increase the energy efficiency of products but to continuously decrease the general environmental impact of products.