EU Could Ban Incandescent Bulbs

The European Commission is drafting energy-efficiency requirements for lighting that would bar old-style lightbulbs

Europe is seeking to get rid of traditional incandescent light bulbs as part of an overall step to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming - the move could reduce the EU's CO2 emissions by 25 million tonnes a year.

The light bulb, over 100 years old and universally symbolic of "a bright idea," is to be scrapped and replaced by more eco-friendly light bulbs that use far less energy.

The incandescent bulb has changed little since it was developed in the 1870s and produces light by passing electricity through a wire filament. But 95 percent of the energy they produce is wasted in the form of heat.

Environmentalists and lawmakers in the European Parliament, headed by UK green MEP Caroline Lucas, have long advocated an EU-wide ban on the traditional light bulb.

EU governments agreed in March this year to ban it across the bloc and called for the European Commission to draw up proposals on energy efficiency requirements for office and street lighting "to be adopted by 2008" and on incandescent bulbs and other forms of lighting in private homes by 2009.

The call was part of the EU's commitment to reach 20 percent energy efficiency savings by 2020 and to cut CO2 emissions by at least 20 percent also by 2020.

Industry proposes phase-out

In the meantime though, the European Lamp Companies Federation (ELC) – which represents 95 percent of all lamp production in Europe – announced that they would phase out the inefficient light bulb by 2015, saying it would cut annual CO2 emission from domestic lighting by more than 60 percent.

The switch could in eight years lead to significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from domestic lighting, and savings of €7 billion for European consumers, said the European manufacturers.

Industry proposes that the phase-out takes place in two-year stages, starting with a ban on 100 Watt bulbs in 2009 and finishing with a ban on 25 Watt bulbs in 2015.

The European Commission welcomed the initiative. "The decision of the industry demonstrates that energy efficiency is a way of combating climate change and reducing our energy dependency," said energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs after the announcement in early June.

Environment group Greenpeace was less enthusiastic though, saying that the voluntary phase-out of the traditional light bulb is too slow and that the least efficient light bulbs should be phased out by 2010.

"When products become trendy, markets can move very quickly to meet demand. It took almost no time for everybody to have a digital camera on their mobile phone and an iPod in their pocket," said Sharon Becker from Greenpeace.

"Efficient light bulbs are not a new technology and could easily replace wasteful light bulbs within two and a half years," she added.

By comparison, Australia announced earlier this year that it would ban the energy inefficient light bulbs. They are to phased out by 2010, reducing CO2 emissions by an estimated 800,000 tonnes – 0.14 percent - a year by 2012. Canada, New Zealand and four states in the US have also mooted similar bans by 2012.

New EU requirements

The commission's environment and energy departments are currently working together on minimum energy efficiency requirements for street and household lighting as well as other appliances such as water boilers and mobile phone chargers.

And it is not certain that the commission will adopt the lamp industry proposal as it is. "We are looking into the matter," says the EU commission's environment spokeswoman Barbara Helfferich.

She added that it is still worthwhile for the commission to suggest standards for light bulbs across the bloc.

Commission spokesman for energy, Ferran Tarradellas, recently said that "we reserve the right to propose tougher standards" than industry.

Ms Helfferich also pointed out, however, that "there is the issue of toxic material," which the commission is also carefully considering.

The new energy efficient light bulbs – or compact fluorescent lights (CFL) as they are technically called - produce light when a small amount of mercury vapour conducts electrical current to a luminescent coating that lines a glass tube.

However, mercury is a dangerous substance that can damage the nervous system, brain and kidneys, it is also harmful to ecosystems and wildlife, meaning there are issues about how to dispose of the bulbs safely.

In May, MEPs in the European Parliament's environment committee adopted a report banning the export and import of mercury in the EU and strengthening the rules for storing the toxic metal, which is also used to make batteries, thermometers, barometers and caustic soda.

Lighting accounts for 14 percent of all electricity consumption within the EU and studies show that the 27-member bloc could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25 million tonnes a year - or 0.68 percent - if households, offices and institutions changed traditional light bulbs for energy saving ones.

Greenpeace still believe that the energy efficient lights bulbs are worthwhile.

"We are in favour of the compact fluorescent light bulbs," Mahi Sideridou from Greenpeace said adding that it is "worthwhile" to use and promote them.

But she admitted there also needs to be a well-thought out take-back policy for controlling disposal of the bulbs.