A light-bulb moment for the world

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2007, 12:00am

Astonishingly, it was Australia's Liberal government - so deeply sunk in climate change denial for so long - that took the radical step of banning incandescent light bulbs. But then, Prime Minister John Howard faces an election this year, and Australia has been suffering from the worst and longest drought in its modern history, so the electorate has been getting worried about climate change.

Severe drought is the main predicted effect of global warming in the temperate regions of the globe. Australia is already the most arid of the world's inhabited continents, and speculation has been mounting that the current drought may portend a drastic fall in the country's ability to grow food. A political gesture was needed, and the light-bulb industry is a lot easier to take on than the coal industry.

The gesture is cynical, but it is also amazingly effective. As Australian Environment Minister Bill Turnbull pointed out: 'If the whole world switches to these [fluorescent] bulbs today, we would reduce our consumption of electricity [worldwide] by an amount equal to five times Australia's annual consumption of electricity.' In other words, it would be like turning off all the lights, fans, televisions, computers, fridges, ovens and air conditioners in Japan, and most of the industrial machinery as well. That is a quick fix that would really make a difference.

The incandescent bulb was invented 125 years ago, and has changed little since. Only 5 per cent of the electricity it consumes is converted into light; most is wasted as heat. But it still accounts for the vast majority of the bulbs that light homes and workplaces around the world. The compact fluorescent bulb uses only one-fifth as much power and lasts 10 to 20 times longer.

Compact fluorescent bulbs are more expensive than incandescent ones, and early models gave a cold, white light that many people did not like - but that has been remedied in newer versions. They cannot replace spotlights, candle bulbs or halogen lights, and they are trickier to recycle. But they could replace 99 per cent of conventional incandescent bulbs in a year or two, since the latter burn out so often. The average country's electricity consumption would immediately fall by about 2 per cent. Domestic electricity bills would fall by around 15 per cent.

It's a cheap, quick, one-time fix, but we need such fixes, because the climate situation is much worse than the experts thought even five years ago. What we do in the next 10 or 20 years will make the difference between a 1.5-degrees-Celsius hotter world and a 3-degrees hotter world in the 2060s and 2070s. That is probably the difference between great discomfort and inconvenience on the one hand, and global famine, global refugee flows and global war on the other.

Climate change is cumulative: the greenhouse gases we emit today hang around year after year to distort the climate further, so quick fixes are not to be despised. Even if the tipping point has finally arrived in terms of public attitudes towards climate change, it will take years to translate good intentions into global treaties. So a 1 per cent cut in emissions this year is as good as a 2 or 3 per cent cut in 2015. Changing the light bulbs is something we can do this year.

There are other quick fixes that could offer comparable returns. Just banning all electrical appliances whose 'standby' function consumes more than one watt of power would cut global carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 1 per cent. The standby function means that the appliance comes on right away, rather than warming up for a few seconds first.

So here's to Fidel Castro - who started switching Cuba to compact fluorescent bulbs two years ago. And to Hugo Chavez, now doing the same in Venezuela, and to their comrade in arms John Howard, in Australia. And lawmakers in California and New Jersey are also proposing a ban on incandescent bulbs. Virtue flourishes in the most unexpected places.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries