The European Union will launch a ban on incandescent light bulbs beginning tomorrow, September 2. Stores will still sell the traditional, energy wasting bulbs until stocks are depleted. As with most environmental actions, this transition from incandescent to fluorescent sparked debate about economic, health and environmental trade-offs.
bulbs illuminate areas when a current heats a filament until it glows. This requires relatively more energy than other lighting methods. Fluorescent
bulbs, also known as compact fluorescent lights or CFLs, have gained popularity among environmentalists due to their energy efficiency. This type of light glows when an electric current flows through a tube containing trace amounts of mercury, causing the mercury atoms to luminesce.
Proponents of fluorescent lighting declare that a simple cost-benefit analysis suggests an economic incentive to make the switch. According to a recent New York Times article
, old-school bulbs cost seventy cents, while the newbies can sell for up to fourteen dollars. With such a disparate price, a reader would scoff at any movement to encourage the more expensive options. However, a simple search reveals energy-saving lights for five dollars, and cheaper options probably exist.
One incentive for buying fluorescent lights is to eliminate choice, which is how the EU is approaching the matter. Short of employing force, Europeans will have few other options for lighting their homes. Hopefully this stringent consumer strategy will decrease energy consumption. Perhaps a radical minority of people resisting the concept of government-enforced light bulbs will simply keep a dark house. That would likewise reduce energy use, in addition to eliminating the waste and pollution of the bulbs themselves. It would be unbelievable if some opted to eliminate all light bulbs, but that may be the most cost-effective option!
Madison, WI explored a different way to promote green lighting. In stores around town, new, energy-saving fixtures were sold for one dollar. Unfortunately I do not know how this discount impacted CFL purchases throughout the city. Personally, I have one friend who took the opportunity to outfit his apartment with the new bulbs. Did it make a difference on his electricity bill? I doubt he paid that much attention to the economic cost-benefit effect. It will benefit the landlord and new tenants, who won’t be buying light bulbs for ages, since CFLs may last five times longer than incandescent lights.
Subsidizing the price of the new bulbs appeals to those shoppers who are already familiar with the effect of florescent bulbs, and have already judged them superior to traditional bulbs. At one dollar, one should see a clear display of consumer choice: at a similar price, does the buyer want an energy-saving option, or does the buyer stick to the conventional incandescent? I do not have the report on the efficacy of the city’s temporary sale. It does not ensure energy saving as does Europe’s proposed regulation.
What does (will) it all mean?
In various issues of pollution and waste, we tend to externalize the costs. We pay for the initial light bulb, and we pay our electricity bill, but the environmental damage from the coal, natural gas and petroleum
used to fuel our lifestyles remains unpaid for. Well, there are few people fundraising for polluted rivers in streams; there are few people who know about the long-term devastation of coal mining in Montana
. Artificially lowering the cost of CFLs patterns other American subsidies. Gas is the first that comes to mind. We should pay a lot for gas and electricity because the lasting damage of our purchasing power will destroy our planet. When you think of light bulbs like that, who cares if fluorescent bulbs emit a different type of light than incandescent, we will grow accustomed to it. We should grow accustomed to it, but whether Madison, WI or the United States as a whole forces us too remains to be seen.