9 June 2021

Whose bright idea was banning halogen light bulbs?

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When it comes to tackling climate change there are two key commandments: First it must be done the cheap way, and second it must be done the cheap way. With its decision to ban halogen and fluorescent light bulbs, the government is breaking both.

The first rule was laid down in the Stern Review, the 2006 document widely credited with convincing leaders that something had to be done to avert environmental disaster. It pointed out that humans do less of expensive things and more of cheaper – that’s just how we roll as a species. So if we choose expensive ways of dealing with climate change then we’ll deal with less climate change. Stern also noted that governments are much less efficient at picking technologies than markets. He recommended a carbon tax to adjust prices and then letting competition do the rest.

So what is government doing? Choosing technologies. Given my own professional background in the lighting industry (supplying the rare minerals that make halogens work) I have a definite, if cynical, belief that the real driving force here is the light bulb companies. What’s the point in spending a fortune developing new technologies if you can’t force people to buy them?

It’s happened before. Just a decade ago we were all beaten into using the halogens, fluorescents and CFLs instead of incandescents. Now we’ve got to rip all of that out and replace with LEDs. It would have been considerably less expensive to wait and make just the one change. Yes, the new bulbs are screw and pin compliant with the old fixtures and fittings. But that’s not the point. The light itself is different, so is the diffusion, meaning that lighting systems – the idea that you get the amount of light you want in the places you want it – have to be changed to deal with the new bulbs.

It’s only the latest example of governments picking technological losers. There was the decision to put ethanol derived from wheat into fuel: growing wheat to feed fuel tanks not only causes hunger – food is for people, not cars – it also emits more CO2 than just using petrol in the first place. Then there was the idea that we must all have electrics and therefore the country needs to be rewired with battery chargers. If green hydrogen becomes cheap then we’ll need fuel cells, not batteries. And if it becomes really cheap then artificial hydrocarbons, for which we can use the current infrastructure of petrol stations and internal combustion engines, will be the proper solution. Cheap hydrogen could also be the answer to domestic heating, but we’re currently banning gas boilers and replacing them with heat pumps.

Another way to put this is that we don’t actually know which is going to be the best technology, so we’d better just have all of them out there and see which one does best. That is, market competition with properly adjusted prices rather than bureaucratic fiat.

The second commandment on doing things the cheap way comes from William Nordhaus – who won a Nobel prize for his work on the economics of climate change. He emphasised that there is installed machinery and technology out there, and it’s clearly vastly cheaper to replace it when it wears out that it is to rip out perfectly useful kit. As with every technology, it’s the whole system that matters, not one or other moving part.

But again, law-makers are ignoring this precept. The insistence that new internal combustion engines may not be sold into the 2030s requires not only building an entirely new electrical power system – domestic mains have insufficient capacity to support home recharging and we haven’t got enough generating plants either – but also scrapping the current perfectly functional refuelling infrastructure. Replacing gas boilers with heat pumps may or may not be a good idea, certainly its expensive even if done just on the normal replacement cycle, but the insistence by some that all old boilers be ripped out and replaced makes it more expensive.

So too with this light bulb idea. It isn’t just that they’re insisting on an expensive new technology for the second time in a decade, it’s that the cost of changing the whole system is being added to by the injunction to do it now. Rather than, as Nordhaus advises, replacing worn out old systems we’re having to rip out still useful ones. Even if the new technology is, by some bureaucratic mischance, actually the correct one, this is still a wasteful way of doing things.

Imagine if electric cars, heat pumps, LED lights, really are the bees’ patellae. Excellent – as people look to replace their current systems then they’ll naturally gravitate towards these better technologies. That way we’ll make more progress in solving climate change because we’re doing at the least cost.

But the fact that government’s wish to force us to use these technologies creates the nagging feeling that they may not be better – if they were we’d already be using them by choice. So when it comes to banning halogen light bulbs in favour of LEDs, I take a dim view.

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Tim Worstall works for the Continental Telegraph and the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.