How I learned to stop worrying and change my lightbulbs


On September 1st, the EU phaseout of the sale and manufacture of the traditional incandescent lightbulb was completed, sparking a bout of nostalgia in this Irish Green's heart...

The other day, I read about a change about light bulbs that left me with a certain amount of pride.

On September 1, the last stage of the EU wide ban on the traditional incandescent light bulb came into force, with consumers from Lisbon to Helsinki now obliged to buy low energy CFL bulbs instead of the 40 and 25 watt traditional bulbs.

The process was begun in 2009 by the EU, and the 60 and 100 watt bulbs were phased out. By 2016 even halogen bulbs will go the way of the dodo. The move is predicted to save a mindboggling 39 terawatts of energy in the EU between now and 2020.

As an Irish Green, I felt a special connection with this real Green achievement. As the junior member of a coalition, we started to eliminate the wasteful old bulbs soon after entering government in 2007. The announcement of the plan was met with much resistance and argument, as does any decisive move in Irish politics these days. Perhaps its a quirk of our character, or our single transferable vote electoral system, but in Ireland it often seems that you are punished more for action than for inaction. Nonetheless, Environment Minister and Green Party leader John Gormley pushed ahead along with fellow Green Minister for Energy, Eamon Ryan.

Resistance was quick in coming, and strident in tone. The Daily Mail, increasingly the voice for climate change deniers, xenophobes and an assortment of other right wingers, set the tone with articles about 'eco-fascism' and all sorts of crazy stories about the health effects and mercury from the new bulbs. What they didn't cover was that Ireland was the biggest user per capita of electricity for lighting in the whole EU. That the measure would result in a saving of 700,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, and that it would save Irish consumers €185 million per year in lower energy and bulb purchases once it was in place. These energy savings would have gone some way to making a reality of Ireland's EU and Kyoto Treaty commitments to cut emissions and increase efficiency.

Nonetheless, the resistance was considerable, and it soon became clear that many people were happy to use any of our various policy initiatives to attack the Greens. The opposition Labour Party spokesperson on Energy even stated that the move could increase Irish people's heating bills, as they lost all that waste heat from the traditional bulbs, a statement so ridiculous that it actually helped to turn the tide in our favour. But as with most things in politics, the noise from those opposed was drowning out the quiet acceptance of a win-win idea from the majority of the population.

The EU itself became involved in the matter, when it seemed the ECJ might rule that the ban was an unfair market intrusion. In the end, however, the EU decided on a different course – they would instead implement the ban on an EU wide level, following the Irish approach of gradual announced phaseouts.

For us, this was a real point of pride – there is a prevalent attitude in Ireland that we are somehow more poorly governed than other European countries, yet like we did with the public smoking ban, many people felt that Ireland was leading the way instead of following. This week, that process came to an end, and for me, far removed now from that tumultuous time in government, and far from home, it was a nice reminder of some of the things that we managed to achieve.



About 5 years ago

Irish link in response:

Most of us would agree that it is good to avoid energy waste.
Also, certainly, people can save on switching their most commonly used light bulbs.

However, energy saving is not the only reason for choosing a light bulb you want to use.
Incandescent bulbs have many advantages of their own (and as you say, the similar Halogens will be banned too, by 2016).

Besides, one should not confuse individual savings with society savings.
Society laws should be about Society savings, not
what Johnny wants to use in his bedroom....
and Society savings are negligible, a fraction of 1% energy or c. 1% grid use as also from official sources, still not taking account of life cycle (manufacture etc) and
other bulb use factors, or power plant operational factors.

For example, Cambridge University Network, Scientific Alliance (governmentally supported, and who officially support UK Climate Change policies etc with "real" measures)
" The total reduction in EU energy use 0.54 x 0.8 x 0.76% = 0.33%
This figure is almost certainly an overestimate...
Which begs the question: is it really worth it?
The problem is that legislators are unable to tackle the big issues of energy use effectively, so go for the soft target of a high profile domestic use of energy ...this is gesture politics."

Certainly, real and good energy policies!
But chasing people around to force them to use other bulbs is pointless and counter-productive.

In other words:
Light bulbs don't burn coal or release CO2 gas.
Power plants might - and might not.
If there is a Problem - Deal with the Problem.

Even if power source was using coal, the main CO2 releasing source, the base loading nature of trad coal plants makes them slow to turn down and up in offpeak hours when most lighting used (DEFRA UK) – even applies to newer cycling coal plants, which have less emissions anyway
(APTECH referenced , on day-night coal cycle operation)
So: the same coal often burned - regardless of light bulb used.

Again, even if the bulbs had to be targeted, they could be taxed, and the income used to lower the price of alternatives - so the energy saving goal is kept, people are "not just hit by taxes" and those who really want can still buy the bulbs.

As it happens, worldwide, GE, Philips, Osram/Sylvania have openly lobbied for and got bans on patent expired generic cheap less profitable competing products
Why welcome being told what you can or can't make ;-)


About 5 years ago

Thanks Lighthouse for that detailed response!

You're quite right of course that light bulbs don't produce the pollution themselves. But the EU has estimated that the switchover will save 39 terawatt-hours a year across the Union. That is a huge amount of energy, and the beauty of the bulb changeover is that it essentially 'locks in' drops in energy use - the energy difference is so significant compared to normal bulbs that over matter of years the savings cannot help but reduce energy demand, and thereby lower the usage of fossil fuel energy and demand for new plants. The EU has an energy efficiency strategy, this move is that strategy put into action. Some of it will be voluntary, some of it will not. Governments and the EU are there to act on the environmental crisis, and if we in the developed world cannot agree to a change as tiny as the light bulb phase-out in order to lower our global environmental impact, there is little hope that we can make the changes necessary to achieve a sustainable society. The idea that such a transition can be entirely free of sacrifice, however small, is not realistic.

At the same time, you are correct to point out the supply side of the issue: we as Greens are at the forefront of pushing renewable energy to displace fossil fuel energy production, but if demand continues to increase at a rate that outstrips renewables creation, this will all be for nothing. We have to manage both sides simultaneously.

Lastly, the production and disposal of hugely smaller amounts of bulbs will have a positive environmental effect. Yes, CFL bulbs require more careful handling, but this itself is not necessarily a bad thing! Better that these bulbs get recycled at centres that will reuse the materials than incandescent bulbs be carelessly thrown in the bin!

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