Another Bright Idea Thomas EdisonThis week the European ban on old—fashioned, energy sucking incandescent light bulbs begins. Stores that sell the banned bulbs will be allowed to sell what they have on hand and then that’s it. Say adieu to the shapely frosted bulb and guten tag to the coiled compact fluorescent lamp. It’s a system change that will come to the United States in 2012 when a similar ban will take effect here. 

Why ban old bulbs? The numbers are pretty clear. According to the European Union “the energy savings would cut average household electricity bills by up to €50 a year, amounting to about €5 billion annually” (that’s more than $7 billion dollars). According to the European Lamp Companies Federation  “7800 million kWh in electrical energy will be saved, which is 2 percent of total energy used for lighting in Western Europe.” The Federation also found that a change away from the traditional light bulbs means that “CO2 emission[s] will be reduced by 4600 million tons of CO2—a reduction in the generation of greenhouse gases of 33 percent.” For a simple shift, these numbers aren’t too shabby.

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  • Change is difficult nonetheless. The complaining has already started. Officials are being accused of “depriving children of traditional fairground lights.” Mean, cold-hearted officials! They hate children (and probably freedom too)! Or, wait, is it that they want to protect the children’s future?

    Whenever I read about something being banned I have to admit my adrenaline starts spiking. See, around this town, I was called the “tobacco czar” several years ago because I was in charge of efforts to enforce Washington State’s smoking ban. I also have to laugh a bit because I have heard all the arguments against such a ban (selling cigarettes is “why we live in America“). But this ban—even while it’s unrelated to an addictive substance (or is it?)—has some new ones. There are sure to be “fairground lights” arguments here in the States, and George Will already accused the coming US bulb switch as part of a protectionist conspiracy. On the bright side, we’ll have lots of new “how many does it take to screw in a light bulb” jokes coming our way.

    But like public health, tackling climate change is going to be most effective at the systems—or up-stream level. I wrote recently about Dr. John Snow and how he begged local officials to remove the handle from a contaminated well. When they finally did it the terrible outbreak of cholera stopped.

    Taking the old light bulb off store shelves is like removing the pump handle. The benefit is enormous when compared to minor adjustments. This has always been the case with wholesale systems change, whether it has been smoking on airplanes (“people won’t fly anymore!”), taking phosphorus out of dishwashing soap (“my dishes won’t get clean!”), changing building codes (“you’ll put us all out of business!”), or cap and trade (“energy prices will soar!”).

    Change is difficult. After all, we all know the story of Thomas Edison trying everything under the sun—bamboo, hair, copper, gold—to make the filament of his light bulb brighter and longer-lasting. It’s American mythology—our proud scientific heritage. But our pride in Edison is wrapped up in a belief that we’re capable of continued innovation and progress. On that score, I think Thomas Edison would approve.