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.
If the rest of the world joins Australia in this simple step
to sharply cut carbon emissions, the worldwide drop in electricity
use would permit the closing of more than 270 coal-fired (500
megawatt) power plants. For the United States, this bulb switch
would facilitate shutting down 80 coal-fired plants.
The good news is that the world may be approaching a social tipping
point in this shift to efficient light bulbs. On April 25, 2007,
just two months after Australia’s announcement, the Canadian
government announced it would phase out sales of incandescents
by 2012. Mounting concerns about climate change are driving the
bulb replacement movement.
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 four 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.
At the industry level, Philips, the world’s largest lighting
manufacturer, has announced plans to discontinue marketing incandescents
in Europe and the United States by 2016. More broadly, the European
Lamp Companies Federation is supporting a rise in EU lighting
efficiency standards that would lead to a phase-out of incandescent
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
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. While a worldwide phase
out of the inefficient incandescents would reduce world electricity
use by more than 3 percent, shifting to more efficient street
lighting and replacing older fluorescent tubes with newer, more
efficient ones might double this reduction in power use.
One disadvantage of compact fluorescents is that each bulb contains
a small amount of mercury, roughly one-fifth the amount in a
watch battery. This mercury is only a small fraction of that
released into the atmosphere by the additional coal burned to
power an incandescent. Mercury released by coal-fired power plants
is the principal reason why 44 of the 50 states in the United
States have issued mercury intake advisories limiting the consumption
of fish from freshwater streams and lakes. Nonetheless, worn-out
compact fluorescents, watch batteries, and other items that contain
mercury still need to be recycled properly. Fortunately, this
is possible, whereas the mercury spewing from coal smokestacks
blankets the countryside, ending up in the water and food supply.
Shifting to the highly efficient bulbs sharply reduces monthly
electricity bills and cuts carbon emissions, since each standard
(13 watt) compact fluorescent over its lifetime reduces coal
use by more than 210 pounds. Such a shift also substantially
reduces air pollution, making it obviously attractive for fast-growing
economies plagued with bad air like China and India.
In the United States, an ingenious Web site called www.18seconds.org,
provides a running tally of compact fluorescents sold nationwide
since January 1, 2007. As of early May, it totaled nearly 37
million bulbs, yielding a reduction in carbon emissions comparable
to taking 260,000 cars off the road. Sponsored by Yahoo! and
Neilson, the site also provides data on how many dollars are
being saved and how much less coal is burned.
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.
Lester R. Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute and
author of Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization
in Trouble. For more data and additional resources at www.earthpolicy.org.