Dimwits: Why 'green' lightbulbs aren't the answer to global warming

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER
UK Daily Mail
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

They have to be left on all the time, they're made from banned toxins and they won't work in half your household fittings. Yet Europe (and Gordon Brown) says 'green' lightbulbs must replace all our old ones.

Every day now we are being deluged with news of the latest proposals from our politicians about how to save the planet from global warming. We must have 'a new world order' to combat climate change, Gordon Brown proclaimed yesterday. We must have strict 'green' limits on air travel, proposes David Cameron, so that no one can afford to take more than one flight a year.

A fifth of all our energy must be 'green' by 2020, says the EU, even though there is no chance of such an absurd target being met. We must have 'green' homes, 'green' cars, 'green' fuel, even microchips in our rubbish bins to enforce 'green' waste disposal.

Have these politicians any longer got the faintest idea what they are talking about? Do they actually look at the hard, practical facts before they rush to compete with each other in this mad musical-chairs of gesture politics?

Take just one instance of this hysteria now sweeping our political class off its feet: that which was bannered across the Daily Mail's front page on Saturday in the headline 'EU switches off our old lightbulbs'.

This was the news that, as part of its latest package of planet-saving measures, the EU plans, within two years, to ban the sale of those traditional incandescent lightbulbs we all take for granted in our homes. Gordon Brown followed suit yesterday, saying he wanted them phased out in Britain by 2011.

No doubt the heads of government who took this decision (following the lead of Fidel Castro's dictatorship in Cuba) purred with selfcongratulation at striking such a daring blow against global warming.

After all, these 'compact fluorescent bulbs' (or CFLs), to which they want us all to switch, use supposedly only a fifth of the energy needed by the familiar tungsten-filament bulbs now to be made illegal.

Among the first to congratulate the EU's leaders was UK Green MEP Caroline Lucas, who claimed that 'banning old-fashioned lightbulbs across the EU would cut carbon emissions by around 20 million tonnes per year and save between e5 million and e8million per year in domestic fuel bills'.

Who could argue? Certainly one lot of people far from impressed by the EU's decision are all those electrical engineers who have been clutching their heads in disbelief. Did those politicians, they wondered, actually take any expert advice before indulging in this latest planet- saving gesture?

In fact, the virtues of these 'low-energy' bulbs are nothing like so wonderful as naive enthusiasts like Ms Lucas imagine them to be. Indeed in many ways, the experts warn, by banning incandescent bulbs altogether, the EU may have committed itself to an appallingly costly blunder.

It is a decision that will have a far greater impact on all our lives than most people are yet aware, presenting the UK alone with a bill which, on our Government's own figures, could be £3 billion or more.

The result will provide a quality of lighting which in many ways will be markedly less efficient. Even Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor who put forward the proposal, admitted that, because the energy-saving bulbs she uses in her flat take some time to warm up, she often has 'a bit of a problem' when she is looking for something she has 'dropped on the carpet'.

But even more significantly, because they must be kept on so much longer to run efficiently, the actual amount of energy saved by these bulbs has been vastly exaggerated.

So what are the disadvantages of CFLs over the traditional bulbs we will no longer be allowed to buy? Quite apart from the fact that the CFLs are larger, much heavier and mostly much uglier than familiar bulbs - and up to 20 times more expensive - the vast majority of them give off a harsher, less pleasant light.

Because they do not produce light in a steady stream, like an incandescent bulb, but flicker 50 times a second, some who use them for reading eventually find their eyes beginning to swim - and they can make fast-moving machine parts look stationary, posing a serious safety problem.

Fluorescent CFLs cannot be used with dimmer switches or electronically-triggered security lights, so these will become a thing of the past. They cannot be used in microwaves, ovens or freezers, because these are either too hot or too cold for them to function (at any temperature above 60C degrees or lower than -20C they don't work),

More seriously, because CFLs need much more ventilation than a standard bulb, they cannot be used in any enclosed light fitting which is not open at both bottom and top - the implications of which for homeowners are horrendous.

Astonishingly, according to a report on 'energy scenarios in the domestic lighting sector', carried out last year for Defra by its Market Transformation Programme, 'less than 50 per cent of the fittings installed in UK homes can currently take CFLs'. In other words, on the Government's own figures, the owners of Britain's 24 million homes will have to replace hundreds of millions of light fittings, at a cost upwards of £3billion.

In addition to this, lowenergy bulbs are much more complex to make than standard bulbs, requiring up to ten times as much energy to manufacture. Unlike standard bulbs, they use toxic materials, including mercury vapour, which the EU itself last year banned from landfill sites - which means that recycling the bulbs will itself create an enormously expensive problem.

Perhaps most significantly of all, however, to run CFLs economically they must be kept on more or less continuously. The more they are turned on and off, the shorter becomes their life, creating a fundamental paradox, as is explained by an Australian electrical expert Rod Elliott (whose Elliott Sound Products website provides as good a technical analysis of the disadvantages of CFLs as any on the internet).

If people continue switching their lights on and off when needed, as Mr Elliott puts it, they will find that their 'green' bulbs have a much shorter life than promised, thus triggering a consumer backlash from those who think they have been fooled.

But if they keep their lights on all the time to maximise their life, CFLs can end up using almost as much electricity from power stations (creating CO2 emissions) as incandescent bulbs - thus cancelling out their one supposed advantage.

In other words, in every possible way this looks like a classic example of kneejerk politics, imposed on us not by our elected Parliament after full consultation and debate, but simply on the whim of 27 politicians sitting around that table in Brussels, not one of whom could have made an informed speech about the pluses and minuses of what they were proposing.

Even if it does have the effect of reducing CO2 emissions, those reductions will be utterly insignificant when compared with emissions from China, for example, which is growing so fast it is using half the world's cement, 30 per cent of the world's coal, one quarter of copper production and 35 per cent of steel.

There was not a hint of democracy in this crackpot decision, which will have a major impact on all our lives, costing many of us thousands of pounds and our economy billions - all to achieve little useful purpose, while making our homes considerably less pleasant to live in.

Such is the price we are now beginning to pay for the ' ecomadness' which is sweeping through our political class like a psychic epidemic. The great 'Euro-bulb blunder' is arguably the starkest symbol to date of the crazy new world into which this is leading us.

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