Eco-lightbulbs: not such a bright idea

Npower’s decision to send out millions of mostly useless lightbulbs shows how demented climate-change targets can be.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

UK energy company Npower provided millions of customers with an unexpected Christmas gift in 2009: low-energy lightbulbs. According to The Times (London), Npower sent out 12million bulbs, unsolicited, in an effort to meet a government-imposed target on carbon-reduction efforts. Yet most of the bulbs are unwanted and may never get used. Welcome to the perverse world of climate-change targets.

Sending out the bulbs was perfectly rational from the point of view of Npower’s bottom line. The company faced a £40million fine if it failed to reach its target of helping customers reduce emissions. However, it has been known for some time that low-energy bulbs never achieve the energy reductions previously claimed for them for a variety of reasons, including: the bulbs are dimmer than claimed, so people need to buy higher-energy bulbs to compensate; they cost less to run, so they actually tend to get left on longer; in the case of freely distributed bulbs, they’re often the wrong wattage or fitting for the lights people actually own. For example, those bog-standard, 60-watt-equivalent, bayonet-fitting bulbs are about as much use as a chocolate teapot in your fancy, ultra-modern, halogen-bulbed Ikea lighting. Frankly, given how little light they generate, eco-bulbs are not much more use in the lamps they are actually designed for.

However, Npower was able to account for the bulbs against that government target as if every one of them was used immediately and had replaced the maximum possible number of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. It would have been far more realistic to have achieved these carbon-reduction goals through helping householders to insulate their properties better, but such efforts are much slower and far more expensive. As The Times notes: ‘Each low-energy bulb costs an energy company £2.97 and saves 0.04 tonnes of carbon over its lifetime. Insulating the external solid walls of a three-bedroom semi-detached house costs £8,760 and saves 18.08 tonnes. A company can achieve the same score of 18.08 tonnes by posting 452 bulbs, costing only £1,342.’

The real kicker is this: having blown money on sending out bulbs that are unwanted, to meet a government target that will have no practical effect, Npower will be able to offset the cost by charging its customers more.

Still, this is by no means the most perverse effect of green target-setting. For example, in December last year, the steel-making firm Corus announced the closure of its plant at Redcar in north-east England. The reason it gave was an ‘over supply’ of steel in the world market. Yet Corus is planning a new plant in the Netherlands and its parent company, the Indian giant Tata, has plans to expand production in India. So why the closure? Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker argues that Europe’s emissions trading scheme has a lot to do with it: ‘The real gain to Corus from stopping production at Redcar… is the saving it will make on its carbon allowances, allocated by the EU under its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). By ceasing to emit a potential six million tonnes of CO2 a year, Corus will benefit from carbon allowances which could soon, according to European Commission projections, be worth up to £600million over the three years before current allocations expire.’

There are, no doubt, a variety of reasons for shifting production from England to India, not merely those that Booker highlights. But since greens like to talk about how the tax system can be used to ‘nudge’ us towards greener technologies, it can hardly be a surprise if some production is nudged away from countries where green taxation and incentive schemes apply to those that are unaffected.

Even when jobs are not being shifted round the world, there are other unintended consequences. As the writer James Heartfield notes in his book Green Capitalism, the result of many green initiatives is not a vast reduction in carbon emissions but an unearned windfall from selling emission allowances. That means big polluters like energy companies have been able to flog spare emission permits to universities and hospitals that should be spending the cash on something more useful. As Christopher Horner pointed out in an interview with spiked in 2008, this ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour led to unholy alliances between big business and greens before even the Kyoto Treaty was signed back in 1997. Climate change deals held out the promise of big bucks for ‘windmills, owned by General Electric; gas pipes, owned by General Electric and Warren Buffett; solar panels, now held by BP, and so on’.

Another aspect of this problem is a shift of funds to the developing world as payment for not starting to pollute. The UK government, for example, expects to get one-fifth of its proposed cuts in carbon emissions by 2050 by simply buying them on the world market. But many of these carbon savings won’t necessarily be real, either. For example, in December, the UN decided to pull the plug on funding, under its Clean Development Mechanism, for 10 windfarm projects in China. The UN argued that the turbines would have been built anyway, but a variety of figures were tweaked to enable them to get UN funding.

If twisting your energy schemes simply to cash in on big, fat grants is irrational (and everyone does it, not just the Chinese), the situation where developed countries effectively pay poor countries not to develop is far worse, as the scandal of carbon-offsetting shows. As Brendan O’Neill has argued previously on spiked, that can mean providing the poor with labour-intensive treadle pumps to access water instead of modern, efficient motorised alternatives (see Is carbon-offsetting just eco-enslavement?).

Such outcomes seem to be the very opposite of what was intended. But the aim of carbon-change target schemes is to encourage us to produce fewer emissions. If we can do this by switching to new, efficient technology that may seem like a good thing. But even in this best-case scenario, obsessing about carbon emissions can only distort the path of innovation away from ways of doing things that are quicker and more efficient in terms of the amount of labour involved – the bedrock of social progress. Worrying about pollution becomes a priority to the exclusion of everything else.

However, this green innovation strategy is as good as it gets. Where new technology is not available or is much more expensive, the real effect of green schemes is to make us do less, full stop. As a recent report extolling the virtues of a shift to green taxes notes: ‘The argument for environmental taxes is that, if a product is made more expensive, people will respectively buy or do less of it. If the activity is associated with excessive environmental damage, this will reduce the environmental damage.’ Rather than development reducing the cost of the things we need, like travel, food and heating, the effect of putting carbon targets on everything is to make them more expensive. If you’re filthy rich, like so many eco-campaigners, that’s not a problem. For the rest of us, who want to see the world, eat food from far-off lands and heat our homes properly, it’s bad news.

If you happen to have been the proud recipient of some useless lightbulbs from your energy company this Christmas, just remember this as you try to find some cupboard space for this latest piece of eco-junk: those lightbulbs are as close to a bright idea as anything that will ever come from the obsession with CO2.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons declared he didn’t want to go back to the low-carbon world of 1875. Rob Johnston debunked the myth of low-energy lightbulbs and said that the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind. James Woudhuysen said the CFLs are on, but there’s nobody home. Josie Appleton urged London to keep the lights on. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today