A Quick Fix

22 February 2007

A Quick Fix

By Gwynne Dyer

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 later 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 Australia’s 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 five percent of the electricity it consumes is converted into light, with most being wasted as heat, but it still accounts for the vast majority of the bulbs that light homes and workplaces around the world. The compact florescent bulb that should have replaced it long ago uses only one-fifth as much electricity, and lasts ten to twenty times as long.

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

It’s a cheap, quick, one-time fix, but we need such fixes, because the situation is much worse than the experts thought even five years ago. What we do in the next ten or twenty years will make the difference between a 1.5 degrees C hotter world and a 3 degrees C hotter world in the 2060s and 2070s. [See below] 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, with the greenhouse gases we emit today hanging 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 — and a one percent cut in emissions this year is as good as a two or three percent 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 CO2 emissions by an estimated one percent. (The “standby” function means that the appliance comes on right away, rather than warming up for a few seconds first — but current “standby” programmes use up to 10 watts of power.)

Similarly, two measures would cut aviation’s contribution to the emissions problem by up to one percent. One would be to tow departing airliners out to the end of the runway, rather than have them start their engines up about half an hour early and get there under their own power. The other would be to create continent-wide air traffic control systems with a single fee structure, thus ending the nonsense of flying around the more expensive countries (there are thirty separate national air traffic control systems in Europe) to save on fees, at a cost of 6-12 percent higher emissions.

We have to do the hard stuff, too, like figuring out how big developing countries like China and India can continue to raise their living standards while the world as a whole cuts its emissions, but even with the best will in the world that is going to take time. We need to get started on the easy stuff right now.

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.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Similarly…now”) NOTE: Fahrenheit users substitute 2.5 degrees and 5 degrees F.