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The truth about light bulbs

The sale of 60 watt incandescent light bulbs is banned in the UK from today, as part of an EU-wide strategy. A report on the BBC website was accompanied by a comment from a shopkeeper:

“This is not a democracy, it’s becoming like a dictatorship, ordering you to do this, do that. You should have a choice.”

To which the only answer can be, no it’s not like a dictatorship. Here’s why not.

The intention to ban incandescent light bulbs was agreed, unanimously, by the European Council (composed of the heads of the national governments of the member states) in March 2007, as part of a strategic plan to reduce the environmental impact of lighting. The new light bulbs are much more efficient users of energy and so will lead to a reduction in the emissions of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change.

That strategic decision was enacted in a regulation drafted by the European Commission with the formal involvement of stakeholders such as consumer and environmental NGOs, approved by a committee of experts nominated by the member states, and then approved by the European Parliament. It is hard to think of a process less like that of a dictatorship.

As to the issue of choice, let us remember what the regulation will do. Carbon dioxide is in effect a pollutant, and this regulation will reduce the amount that is emitted. The primacy of “choice” here would mean that people have the choice whether to cause more pollution. It would undermine democracy if a majority against pollution was unable to take effective action against it because a minority was free to carry on polluting.

Incidentally, let us imagine that the wishes of the anti-Europeans were granted. The EU institutions are reduced to a forum for cooperation among the national governments and nothing more. How would this issue be dealt with?

There would be an agreement among the national governments to phase out these polluting light bulbs (this is a single market matter to be dealt with at European level because otherwise a company in one country could sell them to consumers in another country undermining that second country’s own ban), followed by a meeting of the national government technical experts to sort out the detail. At which point, that would be it. The possible role of the directly-elected European Parliament in scrutinising the new law would be eliminated, because all political power rests in the hands of the national governments and none in the hands of the European institutions. Is that a better system?

Ah, but there are national parliaments: they would have a role instead. But what kind of role could that be? If a national parliament is entitled to reject the European decision, then the single market falls apart. And if a national parliament is not entitled to reject the European decision, then it is reduced merely to a rubber stamp. Neither of those outcomes is acceptable.

The pro-European case is that the parliamentary debates on European decisions should take place at European level. The role for national parliaments on these issues is to scrutinise and hold to account the actions of their respective national governments, in the European Council and in those committees of national experts. It is on the work of those latter committees that more light needs to be shed.

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  1. Banning incandescent bulbs might not necessarily reduce CO2 emissions. Think of the Jevons paradox….
    Additionally, CO2 is not a pollutant, as you claim. It just another gas of many that form the atmosphere.

  2. This sort of comment from those whose only aim is self-grandiosement of anti-Europeans is what you would expect from the UK and its Anti-EU parties.

    What should be remembered here is the following:

    1] Irrespective of the debate about Green House Gases (and the anthromorrphic ones are here in that discussion) if we were all to change our incandecent light-bulbs to their equivalents in fluorescent ones – and that is based upon candelas or light out-put, then we would put into our house-holds an electrically-consuming light bulb that would have an energy consumption that would be equivalent to around 16% of that used currently in lighting alone. So that if we then assume that lighting alone in a house represents 30% of the total electrical energy used then the benfits can be seen in a personal sense to a net saving of 25% and that must not be over-looked.

  3. Ensuring that the opening assertion of an argument is correct usually helps to support the rest of the article. It is NOT illegal to sell 60 watt incandescent bulbs. It is illegal to manufacture them. The owner of my local hardware store estimates that there is approximately three years’ supply in wholesalers’ warehouses and that some consumers have stockpiled sufficient bulbs to last them the rest of their lives.

    This demonstrates that a remote and self-important civil service becomes increasingly out of touch with the population as a whole, who are disassociated from the decision-making procedure.

  4. Not that I would compare a light bulb to a tax law, but a council and a committee of experts are precisely why people, having learned this through experience, believe that directives from afar are to be opposed.

    In a world driven by anticipating a zeitgeist more than anything else, it’s rather obvious the sorts of decisions a council or committee of experts will make, and that they will ban things for the sake of appearing good.

    It isn’t a matter of goverment having authority to regulate, but the content: what the reg is about, and why they’re wasting our time.

    CFLs have been around for a long time. For about 15 years, some people choose them for their efficiency, others use incandecents here and there for their appearance in a traditional fixture, or for the color of light, or because there isn’t much to be saved by putting a CFL in a closet where the light stays on for about 90 seconds a day.

    Here’s the thing about what committees eventually evolve their level of thinking to: they think people are incapable of making economic decision, even the clearly more intelligent decisions in the paragraph above. Incandecents aren’t toxic. They aren’t unsafe. So the question is: are people to be regarded as too dim to make choices for themselves?

    If somebopdy wants to pay a higher electric bill, whatever their reasons are, why should anyone stop them? It’s a PRODUCT. It’s MANUFACTURED. It’s not a life force or a magical elixer of guilt.

    I’d take a notion that nuanced but simple up with a committe of experts, but I don’t speak stupid.

  5. You dismiss democracy very lightly. In a sovereign democratic country the people can sack their government by voting them out. Who can ever be held accountable for the lightbulb ban and the mountain of other EU regulations? Nobody. There is no democratic control, only bureacratic diktat Even if we vote out our national government their replacement will have to abide by EU regulations. Only outside the EU is a country free to make and unmake its laws. Outside the EU, our lawmakers can be held democratically accountable.

    ps. The extra energy required to manufacture fluorescent lightbulbs far outweighs the energy saved by their use. However, since they are mostly manufactured in China we have merely displaced the CO2 emissions from Europe to the Far East. Pointless eco-grandstanding and an excercise of ignorant power demanding obedience.

  6. The replacement for incandescent bulbs, the Compact Fluorescent Lamp Bulb, is not only more costly to manufacture, and full of highly toxic and carcinogenic “dust” that precipitates someone calling out the Environmental Health Unit when one breaks to detox the house, but to acheive it’s maximum efficiency, one must leave it switched on ALL the time! And at the ever increasing costs of EU-fored privatised energy companies, the “savings” over incandescent are, at best, negligible!

    That’s not even going into the alleged “longer life-span” claims….

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