Lightbulbs Aren’t Enough

When you read about climate change in magazines, the articles almost invariably conclude with a list entitled “10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint”, or something similar.

Instead of driving, ride your bike, walk, or use public transit. When you do drive, avoid idling and make sure your tires are properly inflated. Insulate your home. Use compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Recycle and compost. Buy local food from farmer’s markets. We’ve heard it all before.

These are important actions to take. They can go a long way to improve local air quality and save you some money. Local food is yummy, and composting is fun to watch. But will they really help fight climate change?

Dr James Hansen, a climatology pioneer with an incredible track record, believes that atmospheric CO2 needs to be reduced to “at most 350 ppm” from the current 389 ppm. Kyoto required an average reduction of 5% below 1990 levels. The Waxman-Markey climate change bill that just passed the US Congress is aiming for an 80% cut by 2050.

It’s an incredible feat in today’s fossil-fuel dependent world for a country to even stabilize their emissions, let alone decrease them, let alone decrease them enough so that CO2 concentrations will stabilize, let alone decrease them enough so that CO2 concentrations will also decrease.

Is it enough just for the government to run a series of ads which encourage bike riding? Is it enough for them to give a tax credit on compost bins? Will that alone cut our global CO2 emissions the drastic amount that is needed? And most importantly, will enough people even make an effort?

Personally, I believe that governments need to take two different kinds of action against climate change.

1) Improve and expand on infrastructure to support a sustainable lifestyle. Basically, make it easy for everyone to follow the “10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint” list. Create a public transit system which is even more convenient than driving – in Ottawa, where I recently traveled, their rapid-transit buses are so efficient that most (or at least a good chunk of) people ride them to and from work each day. Build bike paths so cyclists don’t have to ride in traffic. Provide a curbside composting and recycling system. Make sustainability so easy for citizens that it won’t seem like an inconvenience.

2) Create legislation and financial incentives, including an emissions target, for industries to move away from fossil fuels and start using clean energies. Citizens and industries tend to care about money more than anything else. If cap-and-trade is designed correctly, it will be in a company’s best financial interests to reduce their emissions. CSS plants will be gold mines. If a carbon tax works correctly, clean energies will cost less than carbon-dense fossil fuels, so people will be more willing to choose them. Their demand will increase and they will become more present in the market.

If you make it easy for people to reduce their carbon footprint, and then it make it more expensive for them not to do so, they will change. If you introduce the freedom to pollute as a currency to industries, they will do what industries like to do, which is to make money and save money.

But simple encouragement will only work on the most ethical of people. And even then it doesn’t go far enough. I would live a far greener lifestyle if transit was better and farmer’s markets were easy to get to.

Until then, commercials encouraging bike riding and energy-efficient lightbulbs are nothing but a facade that make the government look like it’s doing something to support sustainability.

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7 thoughts on “Lightbulbs Aren’t Enough

  1. A couple days ago I was down in civilization, where there are libraries where you can search archives of stuff that’s not accessible via Google. One bit I found was that in fall of 2005, Edelman was running a multimillion dollar campaign on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute to soften up the public to drilling for natural gas, and to encourage voluntary personal “green” actions. With ads in many fine papers…

    What I haven’t figured out yet, is how to redirect peoples’ “tend your own garden” energies into more effective pursuits.

  2. Even worse is continuing to take steps down the wrong path, as with approving new coal power plants and more sprawl development, while promoting those feel-good measures.

    Re CCS, IMHO “money pit” is more apt than “gold mine.” Even if all the technical hurdles can be overcome, I think the added cost of the power will be such that simply going straight to renewables will make a lot more sense.

  3. You’re definitely right. We need a national – even worldwide – effort to create a sustainable society, and that means more than changing light bulbs.

    But light bulbs make a good case study. Many people are willing to use CFLs because they help save money. Not everyone understands the urgency of climate change, but even the most determined denier gets the concept of saving money.

    We need a situation in which it is economically smarter to be sustainable than it is to be wasteful (as is the case with light bulbs). If the government (since it has the most influence) can create that situation, we’ll be on the road to success.

    Of course, politics isn’t that simple. As I mention in one of my posts (, political action has its limitations.

    But if government action encourages and reinforces individual action, that will really make a difference.

  4. What I don’t understand is, that though these newfangled bulbs save money, energy and raw materials for making (and even Hg emissions if coal is used for feeding them), people don’t want to use them. Here, old incandescent bulbs are going to be phased out, and people are even hoarding them!

    They tell me that they have an unpleasant, cold light. I just don’t see that, you can get them in all colour temperatures and I find them fine — don’t even notice any difference. My feeling is that this is a prejudice leftover from the old TL tube lights, which indeed had this problem, and grid frequency flicker.

    Any “enlightenment”?

    • Yeah, the “daylight” bulbs can be really harsh, but I use “soft white” CFLs which have just as nice light as incandescents. In this particular model, the fluorescent coil is smaller, and covered with an incandescent-like globe, so it fits into normal light fixtures, and doesn’t hurt your eyes if you look directly at it.

  5. Kate, I posted elsewhere some comments about what people can do in their own lives to reduce their ecological footprint, which in turn makes a difference with their carbon footprint. I couldn’t find again which thread that was on, but this thread looks appropriate.

    Specifically one poster on ClimateSight spoke about giving up coffee. My response addressed this with some suggestions about choosing shade-grown coffee, and providing some websites that discussed this. This quote from a Oct. 6, 2010 CBC article written by David Suzuki is I think very helpful:

    “Although it won’t replace natural forests, growing coffee in shade using agro-ecosystem techniques does provide extensive understory and canopy cover from a diversity of tropical trees, providing a refuge for butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Studies have shown that shade coffee plantations can provide habitat approaching natural conditions. For instance, a study in the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in southern Mexico found that the number of migratory bird species inhabiting a heavily shaded coffee plantation (30 to 35 species) approached that of a natural rain forest (35 to 40 species). In contrast, sun coffee plantations were used by fewer than five species.

    As with food labelled organic or Fair Trade, consumers need a credible certification system to guarantee that their cup of coffee has been produced in a way that doesn’t harm bird and other wildlife habitat. One credible certification system for shade coffee is the “Bird Friendly” eco-label, which is awarded to producers who follow a rigorous audit and verification process by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

    Switching to certified shade-grown coffee for your morning cup of joe won’t save the planet on its own, but it is one more simple way to lessen your environmental impact.”

    Something that David Suzuki also notes in this article is that sun-grown coffee (usually robusta, the coffee used by Tim Hortons and many mainstream coffees sold in supermarkets) requires heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, all of which have a large energy demand for their production, transport and application. In other words, drinking non-shade grown coffee like robusta coffee has both a negative environmental effect at the place of production (lowering biodiversity, and polluting local streams) and increased energy use (from the application of fertilizers and pesticides), so not the choice for a person seeking to reduce their impact on climate change.

    You can find some info on coffee and who’s doing what in corporate North America here but I know little about this organization so offer no guarantee for their information.


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