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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 13:34 GMT
Light bulbs: Not such a bright idea
Matt Prescott.
VIEWPOINT
Matt Prescott

Governments are wrestling with problems of rising energy demands, rising costs and the spectre of climate change. In this week's Green Room, Dr Matt Prescott argues there is an easy first step to dealing with all three issues - banning the traditional light bulb.

Incandescent light bulb.  Image: BBC
They waste so much energy that if they were invented today, it is highly unlikely they would be allowed onto the market
Matt Prescott
Listening to most politicians, you would think the world's energy problems can be solved only by building ever bigger power stations and burning ever more fuel.

Not so; and it certainly cannot solve the coming climate crisis.

After turning off unnecessary pieces of equipment, improved energy efficiency is the cheapest way for developing countries to maximise their use of limited energy supplies, and for developed countries to achieve cuts in their carbon dioxide emissions.

One quick and simple option for improving energy efficiency would be to make greater use of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Each one of these bulbs produces the same amount of light as an incandescent light bulb whilst being responsible for the emission of 70% less carbon dioxide.

It also saves money; about 7 ($12) per year in the UK, more or less in other countries depending on electricity prices.

So why not just ban incandescent bulbs - why not make them illegal?

They waste so much energy that if they were invented today, it is highly unlikely they would be allowed onto the market.

Nobody would suffer; every energy-saving bulb would save money and help to curb climate change.

It is truly a win-win solution.

Cost benefit

With lighting contributing 5-10% towards the typical electricity bill in the developed world, and even more in the developing world, the savings could really mount up.

Drought in Ethiopia.  Image: Reuters
Low-energy light bulbs would be a first step to curbing climate change
It has been estimated that if every household in the US replaced just three of its incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving designs and used them for five hours per day, it would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 23 million tonnes, reduce electricity demand by the equivalent of 11 coal-fired power stations and save $1.8bn.

Given that investing $450m could save $1.8bn, it is hard to understand why anyone would still choose incandescent bulbs.

In reality, few people seem to be prepared to pay the higher upfront cost of an energy-saving bulb, even though they have much lower running costs; while many seem to feel they are entitled to pollute the Earth's atmosphere without worrying about the consequences.

I have launched banthebulb.org because I feel that the time has come for the world's governments to intervene in the market, and to remove the purchase price advantage that traditional light bulbs have enjoyed.

Simply forcing prices to include the full environmental costs of carbon emissions and pollution would be a good start.

This could be done through a tax on bulbs according to their energy use. The tax level would vary between countries; in the UK, a rate of one penny per watt, or 1 ($1.77) per bulb, should suffice.

The resulting revenues could then be used to subsidise the price of energy-saving bulbs, and to promote greater energy efficiency generally.

Declaring plans to phase out, and eventually ban, traditional light bulbs by a deadline would help to ensure that profligate waste was not tolerated forever, and to kick-start an energy-efficiency revolution.

Bulbs for all

Nuclear power station at Dungeness, UK.  Image: PA
Given the huge subsidies awarded to the nuclear industry, it is clear that the funds certainly exist
Given the huge subsidies awarded to the nuclear industry and to coal production in western nations, it is clear that the funds necessary to provide a financial kick-start certainly exist.

In 2002, the UK government spent 410m on bailing out its near-bankrupt nuclear sector.

That would be more than enough to supply every household in Britain with three energy-saving light bulbs.

As former US President Bill Clinton pointed out at the UN climate negotiations in Montreal, helping the environment does not have to harm the economy.

In fact, a well planned, regulated and enforced energy-efficiency campaign could reduce waste and pollution, save money, create new jobs and stimulate innovation.

Successfully ditching incandescent light bulbs could even encourage us to aim higher when it came to cutting greenhouse gas emissions; to increase efficiency in hot water systems, to insulate homes, to invest in combined heat and power schemes.

If we cannot deny ourselves incandescent light bulbs, which would require minimal sacrifice, how are we ever going to do the really difficult things such as cutting our reliance on fossil fuels, buying smaller cars or reducing our use of finite natural resources?

Ending the life of this inefficient and obsolete technology is not enough to prevent damaging climate change; but it is an easy first step, and one the world should not hesitate to take.

Dr Matt Prescott is director of banthebulb.org, an online campaign encouraging greater energy-efficiency. He is also organiser of the Oxford Earth Summit, and writes the environmental weblog Earth-Info.net

The Green Room is a new series of environmental opinion articles running weekly on the BBC News website.




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