Lester Brown: Ban the Bulb

Sometimes an idea seems almost too good to be true. But this one is not. If there was a worldwide shift from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents, the drop in electricity use would permit us to close 270 coal-fired (500-megawatt) power plants that are contributing enormously to climate change. (See full report.)

Some countries have already started "banning the bulb." On February 20, 2007, Australia announced it would phase out the sale of inefficient incandescent light bulbs by 2010, replacing them with highly efficient compact fluorescent bulbs that use one fourth as much electricity. For the United States, this bulb switch would facilitate shutting down 80 coal-fired plants.

Two months after Australia's announcement, the Canadian government announced it would phase out sales of incandescents by 2012.

In mid-March, a U.S. coalition of environmental groups—including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Alliance to Save Energy, the American Coalition for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and the Earth Day Network—along with Philips Lighting launched an initiative to shift to the more-efficient bulbs in all of the country's estimated 4 billion sockets by 2016.In California, the most populous state, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine is proposing that his state phase out the sale of incandescent light bulbs by 2012, four years ahead of the coalition's deadline. Levine calls his proposed law the "How Many Legislators Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb Act." On the East Coast, the New Jersey legislature is on the verge of requiring state government buildings to replace all incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents by 2010 as part of a broader statewide effort to promote the shift to more-efficient lighting.

The European Union, now numbering 27 countries, announced in March 2007 that it plans to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020. Part of this cut will be achieved by replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. In the United Kingdom, a nongovernmental group called Ban the Bulb has been vigorously pushing for a ban on incandescents since early 2006. Further east, Moscow is urging residents to switch to compact fluorescents. In New Zealand, Climate Change Minister, David Parker, has announced that his country may take similar measures to those adopted by Australia.

In April, Greenpeace urged the government of India to ban incandescents in order to cut carbon emissions. Since roughly 640 million of the 650 million bulbs sold each year in this fast-growing economy are incandescents, the potential for cutting carbon emissions, reducing air pollution, and saving consumers money is huge.

More broadly, the European Lamp Companies Federation (the bulb manufacturers' trade association) is supporting a rise in EU lighting efficiency standards that would lead to a phase-out of incandescent bulbs. (See data.)

At the commercial level, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, announced a marketing campaign in November 2006 to boost its sales of compact fluorescents to 100 million by the end of 2007, more than doubling its annual sales. In the U.K., Currys, Britain's largest electrical retail chain, has announced that it will discontinue selling incandescent light bulbs.

Switching light bulbs is an easy way of realizing large immediate gains in energy efficiency. A study for the U.S. government calculated that the gasoline equivalent of the energy saved over the lifetime of one 24-watt compact fluorescent bulb is sufficient to drive a Prius from New York to San Francisco.

The challenge for each of us, of course, is to shift to compact fluorescents in our own homes if we have not already. But far more important, we need to contact our elected representatives at the city, provincial, or state level and at the national level to introduce legislation to raise lighting efficiency standards, in effect phasing out inefficient incandescent light bulbs. Few things can cut carbon emissions faster than this simple step.

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