In defence of banning the bulb

By Bryan Walker 09/09/2012

I see Canterbury University economist Eric Crampton politely disagrees with my post on the failure to ban incandescent light bulbs. I’d like to comment on a couple of the points he raises. The first concerns the non-priced carbon embodied in the production and distribution of fluorescent and LED bulbs, and the possibility that it may be so large as to negate the advantages of lower carbon emissions during the lifetime of the bulbs.

Crampton admitted he had no clue, but assumed that the more complex efficient bulbs would have a higher carbon footprint in their manufacture than the incandescents. However, he allowed that the longer life of the efficient bulbs probably gave them the overall advantage. I had no clue either, though I’m familiar with the need to take embedded carbon into account when making comparisons and guess I assumed that was not something that had been overlooked in the advocacy of CFLs and LEDs. However I had a look to see what I could find, and came across this assessment of CFLs from a writer initially inclined to be sceptical about them, and this report on LEDs. It doesn’t look to be an issue.

Crampton’s second point was that an ETS which is functioning well removes the need for any regulatory interference in the market. “If power prices incorporate carbon charges via the ETS, then there’s no real economic case for pushing consumers to choose bulbs they don’t want.” He goes on to say that if the ETS isn’t producing the desired effect the answer is to improve the ETS, not make piecemeal interventions. It crossed my mind when I was writing the post that if the ETS was functioning at a level designed to drastically reduce carbon emissions there mightn’t be a need to bemoan the Government’s action on incandescents. But it is not functioning at that level, and the Government seems determined to ensure that it never will, or will only so far in the future as to be much too late.

Reining in carbon emissions has become a matter of high urgency, far outweighing concerns about government intervention in the economy. For that matter the ETS itself is an intervention, designed in its original intention to make markets assume the environmental costs which left to themselves they ignore. I see no reason why it should not be accompanied by other government directives which ensure that markets are not permitted to operate in areas that clearly slow the transition to a decarbonised economy.  We accept government mandates in many parts of the economy such as the compulsory insulation of new buildings and we rue failures in regulation such as allowed the emergence of leaky buildings.

Banning incandescents does not to my mind invoke the spectre of a centrally planned economy. It’s simply part of boundary setting for markets to operate within, a proper function of government and one buttressed by the urgency of the climate crisis.