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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ban The Bulb : The End of the Beginning...
Creating A Goal and Deadline for Action

On 1 September 2012, the final stage of the EU's light bulb ban will come into force, with 40W and 25W incandescents being phased out in 27 European countries.

This is a big day for the Ban The Bulb campaign, which was started via this blog in early 2005.

When this campaign was founded, the idea of phasing out and banning incandescent light bulbs after 120 years of loyal service appeared both laughable and almost impossible.

However, the case for action was compelling and the Ban The Bulb campaign set out to make this case.

Thanks to the world's inventors, it simply hasn't remained necessary to carry on heating a tungsten wire to 2000°C in order to produce reliable light and more energy efficient alternatives have got smaller, brighter and cheaper.

Initially, the Ban The Bulb campaign concentrated on making the case for using compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) which cost more to buy, but then use 60% - 70% less electricity over the whole of their 5 - 10 times longer lifetimes.

As others technologies have been refined it has also become possible to start recommending other technologies, such as LEDs as viable alternatives... and in many ways it is amazing how much has been possible in so little time!

A Virtuous Circle

Interestingly, once politicians started to show an interest in phasing out incandescent light bulbs, retailers started to demand better energy saving designs from manufacturers and governments started to encourage energy companies to subsidise compact fluorescent lamps in shops rather then distribute unrequested lamps directly to households.

A virtuous circle of individual, mutually supporting measures started to alter what looked possible for everyone.

These early stirrings of action were crucial and helped to show that another world was possible and that different players were willing to act.

No-one likes to change the way they do things on their own, and this momentum and mutual support played an important role in enabling the bigger moves which quickly started to look possible.

Success Breeds Success

In Feb 2006, the BBC News website invited the Ban The Bulb campaign to outline why phasing out incandescent light bulbs was a good idea and to address some of the common questions that frequently arise.

By mid 2006, countries with chronic power shortages such as Cuba and Venezuela had started to swap incandescents with CFLs in poor suburbs, as a way of keeping their lights on.

These moves were important national scale efforts, but did not involve bans.

As far as we can tell, the use of a light bulb ban was first seriously floated by a politician in early 2007, when Prime Minister Tony Blair asked the European Commission to consider a light bulb ban as a way of meeting ambitious goals to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. This request carried relatively little political risk, as any success would be bigger and any failure the EU's fault, but still mattered at the time.

While all of this was happening an Assembly Member in California called Lloyd Levine and an Australian Environment Minister called Malcolm Turnbull announced state and national plans for light bulb bans, which were supported by Philips.

All of sudden, politicians were racing to claim the credit for banning light bulbs, a truly incredible state of affairs given this was only a couple of years into the Ban The Bulb campaign.

Fortunately, the EU has gradually come through and put in place the most widespread bans to have actually been delivered anywhere in the world.

Interestingly, the Chinese have also been especially bold, perhaps in ways that have proven pivotal, and announced plans both to stop producing incandescent light bulbs and seize the emerging business opportunities associated with light emitting diodes (LEDs) - thereby turning what had been seen as a negative into a commercial imperative.

Changing the Rules of the Game

Almost every household appliance, including fridges, TVs and ovens, already exists in a form that uses 50% - 80% less energy than the most common designs... as was the case with light bulbs, when this campaign was founded.

This means that we do not have to wait for any new technologies to be invented or decades for the next generation of power stations to be built, we simply need to bring existing technologies into widespread and cheaper use.

As light bulbs have shown, markets do not change by magic, they change as a result of laws being made.

However, once you decide to change the rules of the game, manufacturers will innovate, retailers will offer new products and economies of scale will allow prices to drop.

Without changing the rules, players will carry on playing to the established parameters and very little will ever change.

The End of The Beginning...

The process of phasing out light bulbs has had its fair share of ups and downs, but now bans have been put in place in 30 countries around the world, the next generation of technologies have plummeted in price and it has become normal to buy LEDs which use 90% less electricity to make the same amount of light... are fully dimmable... and produce a daylight spectrum of light.

None of this would have happened for many more years, if it were not for the bans that have forced all manufacturers, retailers, consumers and thus markets to change and to adapt.

This single fact should give us all hope that we will face up to the even bigger energy challenges that remain to be addressed - particularly in relation to mainstreaming energy efficiency and driving innovation.

Now we need to build on this success by using laws to ensure that within our lifetimes all cars, houses and household appliances will use 80% - 90% less energy to meet our needs, and ensure that more energy efficient products are made affordable through mass adoption and economies of scale.

We also need to make sure that every single CFL now in use is properly recycled!


Over the years, a large number of impressive people have emerged in every sector and organisation BTB has dealt with, and Ban The Bulb would like to acknowledge the efforts of Jon Dee in Australia and Greenpeace in India.

The Daily Mail even distributed free CFLs at one stage!

A fuller list of acknowledgements can be seen here.

The overwhelming majority of consumers have been much more open to change and flexible than is generally assumed, once the case for change has been made and serious efforts have been made to ensure that the new technologies are cheap and easy to use.

Aiming Higher

All future predictions for energy demand assume that we will continue to use ever larger amounts of energy, until oil and gas run out, and that we will continue to waste energy on a prolific basis.

We don't have to continue wasting precious resources and polluting the environment without trying to save energy and clearly it is both technically feasible and economic sensible to bring many new technologies into use.

I therefore hope that the successful transformation of domestic lighting within 7 years will encourage you to do your bit to help humanity aim higher...