Starting in September this year, it’s likely that citizens across the EU will start to notice something disappearing from their local shops: Thomas Edison’s most well-known and widely-used invention, the incandescent light bulb.

the incandescent lightbulb may soon become a rare sight within the EU

Making light work of energy efficiency: the incandescent lightbulb may soon become a rare sight within the EU (Image: Wikipedia's KMJ)

This follows from a decision by the EU’s Ecodesign Regulatory Committee to phase out incandescent light bulbs, which consume far more energy than alternatives such as Compact Fluorescents . The phase-out will begin with the brightest incandescent and halogen bulbs this year, and will progressively eliminate lower-Wattage lights in the period to 2012, when they will all be banned. The proposed legislation needs to be scrutinised by the European Parliament and approved by the Commission before becoming law.

This is the latest in a series of technical decisions by the Ecodesign Regulatory Committee that are likely to affect the way electricity is consumed in European households. Over the second half of 2008, they also agreed on new legislation for electrical equipment in standby mode; external power supplies, and set-top boxes. All the measures are designed to improve the energy efficiency, and thereby the environmental performance, of consumer electronic goods.

Energy efficiency is sometimes perceived as the poor relation of other energy policy goals. On paper it’s very cost-effective to reduce emissions by implementing simple measures such as cavity insulation, but in practice it seems difficult to design policies that successfully take advantage of these cheap opportunities to cut carbon. The EU hopes that this very direct approach – banning inefficient products – will help it to make some progress in reaching its goal of improving energy efficiency by 20% by 2020.

As well as cutting energy use by 40TWh per year and CO2 emissions by 15 million tonnes per year, the Committee estimates that households will save €25-50 a year as a result of the legislation.

Although this would be broadly good news for the European economy and European consumers, this might reduce the environmental benefits of this policy. If householders do end up with another €50 in their pockets, they will spend more on other goods and services. These goods and services will themselves consume energy to produce and provide, and this ‘rebound’ effect could well mean that not all the estimated reduction in CO­2 emissions will actually materialise. This is a problem implicit to energy efficiency policies in general rather than a specific feature of the proposed rules on light bulbs, and is a useful reminder that even ‘green’ technologies like low-energy light bulbs aren’t magic bullets in themselves.

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