Three days before the December 11 and 12 Brussels summit at which the European Union hammered out a new deal on a package of measures to fight global warming, the Ecodesign Regulatory Committee announced its endorsement of a European Commission decision to phase out traditional light bulbs by 2012.
The decision is part of the 20 per cent energy consumption-cut target that the EU has set itself for 2020. But before it becomes effective, the phase-out has to be approved by the European Parliament.
Like the rest of the climate package, the decision on how and when to phase out incandescent light bulbs was not universally welcomed with enthusiasm.
An EU media statement hailed the decision as a “ground-breaking measure”, delivering “a clear message” about the bloc’s commitment to reach its energy efficiency and climate protection targets.
French energy and environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo called the decision a “real green revolution”, but environmental organisations were less euphoric. Banthebulb.org labelled it as showing a “total lack of ambition and urgency”, while Greenpeace qualified the decision as too little, too late, calling it “a missed chance” to introduce tougher measures by raising energy efficiency requirements outside the reach of traditional light bulbs and halogen lights.
Ultimately, Greenpeace would have liked to see a complete ban on all incandescent light bulbs, effective immediately, accompanied by a ban on halogen bulbs, which it has claimed “gobble up huge amounts of electricity compared to CFLs [compact fluorescent lamps] or LEDs [light emitting diodes]”.
The EU is hardly the first to introduce a ban on incandescent light bulbs. Reportedly, the first countries to do so were Brazil and Venezuela in 2005. Cuba banned the import, sale and use of incandescents in 2007.
In February 2008, Philippines president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called for a ban on incandescent light bulbs by 2010, which, when put into effect, would make it the first country in Asia to ban incandescent bulbs.
Australia is phasing out incandescent light bulbs by introducing mandatory energy performance standards.
In the United States, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill on October 12 2007 setting energy performance standards that would effectively phase out the use of incandescent bulbs by 2018. The federal Clean Energy Act of 2007 brought that date forward to January 2014, while the infrastructure programme that president-elect Barak Obama announced in early December 2008 has a scope similar to that of the EU’s.
Current alternatives to incandescent light bulbs are CFLs and LEDs. The former were introduced on the market many years ago and prices have dropped to about two to five times those of traditional light bulbs. LEDs, however, have only recently been introduced and prices are still steep.
“LED performance is there, but the price is not,” Kevin Dowling, a Philips Lighting vice-president and a former chairman of the Next Generation Lighting Industry Alliance, was quoted as saying by The New York Times earlier this year.
Philips has announced that it is focusing its research and development on LED bulbs, which it expects to comprise 20 per cent of its professional lighting revenue in two years. But that does not put them within reach of households just yet. Philips’ first LED lamp, the Ledino, was released in September 2008 in half a dozen EU countries, priced at about 70 euro.
Switching to CFLs turns out not be all-bliss either, as CFLs have one major hitch: they contain small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin.
Even though each CFL contains only about one per cent of what an old-fashioned thermometer did, that was still enough for the US Environmental Protection Agency to set up guidelines on what to do when a CFL light bulb breaks. These guidelines include leaving the room and letting it air for 15 minutes.
When CFLs are discarded, they easily break before they get to the landfill, either in the container or in the waste trucks. “Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens,” John Skinner, executive director of US trade group Solid Waste Association of North America, was quoted as saying by National Public Radio in February 2007.
Because of this, discarded CFLs would have to be collected and processed separately. While Sofia might finally have its refuse processing plant by the time incandescent light bulbs are phased out, at present, no plan for collecting and recycling CFLs has been announced.
Other current real-world limitations on the use of CFLs include the inability to operate at extreme temperatures, making them unsuitable for use as oven-lights or even for year-round outdoor lighting, for example, and a lifespan that can be reduced by as much as 85 per cent if used or switched off for intervals shorter than five minutes. Combined with the longer time that CFLs take to reach full light capacity, this makes them a bad practical choice for current lighting conditions in most entrances and halls of apartment blocks in Bulgaria, where timers tend to switch off lights after about a minute and a half.
Ultimately, realities of whether the EU decision on when to phase out light bulbs is ambitious may vary, depending on the practicalities in different parts of the block.