U.N. wants to help countries banish incandescent bulbs once and for all

Incandescent light bulbs

While energy-guzzling standard incandescent bulbs are now a rarity across the U.S. and Europe (save for speciality models), they're still ubiquitous in countries without lighting efficiency standards. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It's easy to forget that not all that long ago, light bulb politics were inescapable in the United States.

Signed into law as part of the Energy Independence Act and Security Act of 2007, federally mandated efficiency standards for light bulbs prompted a fair amount of hand-wringing in 2012 when a gradual phase-out of certain incandescent bulbs kicked in. Many consumers were reluctant to embrace — and pay more for — newfangled, energy-saving bulbs that just weren't the same as their beloved incandescents. Tea Party politicians were quick to portray the standards as an egregious symbol of government overreach. (This opposition managed to appall even the forward-thinking descendants of Thomas Edison.) But there was no turning back. Manufacturers were already racing to develop low-cost, high-quality replacement bulbs while incandescents became more and more scarce on store shelves. American consumers — as they tend to do — adapted.

And we're all the better for it.

It's also easy to forget that as America continues to collectively adjust to a new LED-illuminated reality, other countries remain dependent on wasteful and outmoded incandescents. This is particularly true of developing nations where energy-efficient lighting has the greatest potential to improve the lives of millions of people literally left in the dark.

A newly launched United Nations initiative lays the groundwork for phasing out low-quality, low-efficiency bulbs in areas where efficiency standards for lighting are outdated or nonexistent. Established as part of U.N. Environment's United for Efficiency (U4E) scheme — which also tackles energy-guzzling refrigerators, air conditioners, electric motors and transformers — the model minimum energy performance guidelines for light bulbs have the potential to save developing and emerging economies $18 billion in electricity costs while also halting 160 million metric tons of global carbon emissions by 2030.

Incandescent light bulbs in Thailand Thailand, Turkey and South Africa are mentioned as three countries that would benefit from U.N.-crafted model regulations on energy-efficient light bulbs. (Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

If and when targeted countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America adapt the guidelines and eventually transition from incandescent bulbs to their long-lasting LED counterparts, the total amount of energy saved would be equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of Mexico. (And, yes, Mexico introduced its own successful incandescent ban several years ago.)

Announced at the International Energy Efficiency Global Forum held in Copenhagen, the model regulation guidelines were developed by U.N. Environment in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Signify, the Netherlands-based industry leader that until recently was known as Philips Lighting.

As Harry Verhaar, head of Global Public and Government Affairs at Signify, notes in a U.N. news release, the time is now for aiding countries in finally doing away with incandescent bulbs once and for all: "The global market for incandescent light bulbs has reduced by 80 per cent from 12 to 2 billion units over the past ten years. Implementing these Guidelines is crucial for developing and emerging economies, where incandescent light bulbs are still widely available."

Anti-incandescent Greenpeace demonstration in India Greenpeace stages a demonstration in New Delhi, India, as part of a 2007 campaign against incandescent bulbs. In 2017, the Indian government announced plans to phase out the bulbs by 2020. (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Shedding light on light bulb efficiency

Over at the NRDC, senior scientist Noah Horowitz explains the basics of how U.N.-crafted model regulations for light bulb efficiency in developing nations will work:

Lighting represents 15 percent of all worldwide electricity use and there are billions of inefficient incandescent and halogen light bulbs installed and still being sold around the world. While regulations that phase out future sales of these inefficient bulbs are due to go into effect throughout the European Union later this year and in the United States in 2020 (and are already in effect in California), similar policies do not exist in most developing and emerging economies. The model regulation provides everything an interested country needs to move forward to eliminate the most energy-wasting bulbs: scope, test methods, minimum efficiency levels for each type of bulb, and some basic performance requirements to ensure that consumers have a good experience with the LED bulbs they will be buying. The model regulation is ready to be ‘cut and pasted' into law by any country ready to take the next step and adopt them.

U.N. Environment and its collaborators hope that by establishing a single set of efficiency and performance standards for light bulbs across the board, disparate nations will find it easier to adapt than in a scenario where standards vary from country to country. This also, of course, benefits lighting behemoths like Signify. The less all-over-the-place regulations are, the greater the volume of bulbs manufactures can produce at once. This in, turn, enables manufacturers to lower prices.

Sign announcing GE's incandescent light bulb retirement Horowitz goes on to explain that countries that decide to implement the model regulations will ideally require all commercially available bulbs to be as efficient as LEDs, which use 90 percent less energy than incandescents and boast a lifespan ranging from 10 to 25 years depending on daily usage.

Alternately, countries that adapt the guidelines can also allow for the sale of CFL bulbs, which burn longer than incandescent bulbs but don't match the efficiency of LEDs. Already phased-out by numerous manufacturers, CFLs remain a tough sell for light bulb traditionalists because of their curlicue shape, the special handling involved with their disposal and the harsh, unflattering light emitted by cheaper models. Although they had a shaky start in light bulb popularity contests, LED bulbs now rule when it comes to mimicking both the warm, yellow-ish hues and the familiar, reassuring shape of incandescent bulbs.

Three countries mentioned by Horowitz that would see immediate benefits from the model regulations include Turkey, Thailand and South Africa.

"Light bulbs represent a unique opportunity for rapid savings because incandescent and halogen bulbs are usually replaced within a year or two due to their short lifetimes," writes Horowitz. "Therefore, the transition can occur much faster than with other products, such as refrigerators which are only replaced once every 10 to 15 years. The switch to LED lighting represents one of the fastest and cheapest ways to deliver mammoth carbon pollution savings in a hurry."

Now that the model guidelines are a done deal, they'll be distributed to "interested" countries. I'm curious to see which ones are the first to bite.

Inset image: Incandescent Light Bulbs GE Soft White

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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