Light-bulb ban has voters incandescent with rage

Canadians will obey a host of environmental regulations, but an apparently innocuous light-bulb policy may be going too far

Light-bulb ban has voters incandescent with rage

Reuters/Chris Wattie

It may be the universal symbol for a bright idea, but a great deal of political attention has been paid to the light bulb of late, with results that seem rather dim. Governments are finally realizing there’s more to environmental policy than simply passing a few laws and demanding that everyone obey. The public must believe in these moves as well.

In 2007, both the U.S. and Canada announced new energy efficiency standards for the sale of light bulbs that had the effect of banning traditional incandescent bulbs. In Canada, 100-watt and 75-watt varieties were to be removed from shelves starting January 2012. By January 2013, the familiar 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs would also be forbidden.

At the time, these new regulations were seen by both the Stephen Harper and George W. Bush governments as a way of proving their green credentials with little cost to the public purse. Incandescent bulbs were considered ancient technology, hardly changed since Thomas Edison’s brainstorm of 1879; newer technology promised far greater energy efficiency. All that was required was to take away people’s old bulbs.

It hasn’t been that simple.

In the U.S., the prospect of a light-bulb ban has become a major prop for Tea Party activists eager to prove Washington is overly intrusive and meddlesome. Republicans in Congress are fighting to repeal the light-bulb ban. Texas has already passed such a law. And many Americans are stockpiling the proposed contraband as an act of defiance.

In Canada, the Harper government appears to have anticipated a similar populist outburst by quietly announcing its intention to delay implementation of its ban until 2014. (British Columbia has its own regulations that currently outlaw the sale or importation of traditional 100-watt and 75-watt incandescent bulbs.) Ottawa says it needs more time to address “communication activities.” In other words, it seems the public isn’t quite ready to give up its familiar old light bulbs.

While Canadians have compliantly obeyed or tacitly supported a wide variety of imposed environmental policies, ranging from messy garbage sorting to massive subsidies for solar and wind power, an apparently innocuous light-bulb policy is experiencing significant push-back. What are the lessons for government and environmental groups?

First, the laws were unveiled without significant consultation or public buy-in. It was rule by diktat and objectionable on those grounds alone.

Second, the available replacements—compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs—are demonstrably inferior in terms of performance and cost. As everyone knows, CFL bulbs are more expensive and give off a harsh glow in sharp contrast to the familiar warmth (and low cost) of incandescent bulbs. For most Canadians the light-bulb ban promised a noticeable reduction in perceived living standard.

Third, the claimed environmental benefits of reduced energy consumption were negated by the presence of mercury in CFLs. Given the hysteria regarding minute quantities of mercury or other toxins in many other everyday household products, it seems ludicrous for a government to mandate mercury in light bulbs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides a three-page set of directions on what to do if you break a CFL bulb, including shutting off the furnace or air conditioner to prevent the spread of deadly mercury vapour through the house. The net environmental benefits of the change are thus obscure, and not worth the reduction in living standards.

Environmental groups, such as Canada’s Pembina Institute, have objected to Ottawa’s postponement, claiming “a delay will do more harm than good.” However, this light-bulb episode may mark a turning point in green policy. It appears there are some things the public will simply not accept, even in the name of environmentalism. Taking away familiar, useful and inexpensive products without providing a suitable replacement is one of those things.

Rather than relying on government fiat to reduce energy consumption, there are other ways to achieve green gains. Buried within the 2007 regulations of the U.S. law is the intriguing Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize, in which Washington has offered $15 million in prize money and the prospect of massive government contracts to the first commercial bulb of any technology that meets tough new standards for lighting capabilities and energy consumption.

If the winning L-Prize bulbs deliver both performance and savings, there will be no need to regulate the sale of old-style light bulbs. Consumer self-interest will accomplish what government decree could not.

Sometimes a carrot works better than a stick. And a prize works better than a ban. How’s that for a bright idea?

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