Fighting warming ... 1b light bulbs at a time

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2007, 12:00am

Tackling the high levels of pollution that have accompanied the mainland's rapid industrial growth requires a mammoth policymaking and enforcement effort. Given the scale of the problem, Beijing's latest initiative - to replace incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving ones - may seem of little significance. After all, statistics show light bulbs to account for only 12 per cent of the mainland's electricity usage and, consequently, a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

But this would be to miss the point. The importance of Beijing's decision, which is yet to be officially confirmed, lies in the potential impact of so basic a consumer item on changing global attitudes towards environmental protection.

There is no better place to get every citizen involved in the fight against environmental degradation than with the humble light bulb. Ensuring that the incandescent variety is replaced by electricity-efficient ones gets the message across loud and clear that concrete, practical measures are necessary.

Mainland authorities are to be applauded for deciding to become the first developing nation, and only the third in the world after Australia and Canada, to phase out energy-wasting lighting. China owns the core technology for electricity-efficient bulbs and is the foremost manufacturer of them, as well as of conventional varieties. This puts it in a good position to influence global attitudes.

Cost is the biggest barrier for the mainland and other developing nations. Although fluorescent bulbs last 10 times longer than the traditional incandescent ones, they cost at least four times as much. This is not a problem for people in wealthy nations like Australia, but is a burden for those living in or near poverty. Australia has announced an outright ban that will be in place in 2010.

Whether a ban or a substantial tax on traditional bulbs is the best way forward is a matter of debate. As far as creating greater environmental awareness, the latter is perhaps preferable. But whatever means are used, light bulbs are the perfect starting point to building a grass-roots-up approach to cutting electricity use and reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, the main pollutant responsible for global warming. Through them, citizens can be educated to buy energy-efficient household appliances, recycle and make greater use of public transport.

The message is one which we still need to grasp in Hong Kong, although our awareness of the need to combat pollution is growing. Legislating for low-energy light bulbs is one of the simplest environmentally friendly policies to implement. It is a move the government should consider.

But there is another problem. The European Union's protectionist approach to its fluorescent lighting industry has meant that for the past six years it has blocked cheaper Chinese imports. This has kept production volumes down and prices up. There is no room for protectionism in the battle against global warming, nor is there any excuse to stand by and expect others to take the lead.

China is predicted to become the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases by the end of this year. Policies to reverse the trend are in place, but implementation at the provincial and local level remains problematic.

The phasing out of incandescent light bulbs provides an opportunity for new impetus in the fight. But the move will require determination and global support if it is to succeed.