Banning incandescent light bulbs isn't the smartest way to tackle global warming.

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Aug. 17 2011 1:38 PM

A Dim Bulb of an Idea

Banning incandescent light bulbs isn't the smartest way to tackle global warming.

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The solution should be to focus on improving the technology—making the lights safer, brighter, warm up faster, and save more energy, so that more people will replace more of their lights.

But it is not just light bulbs that policymakers have tried to ban. EU parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly to outlaw patio heaters, which one MEP declared to be "a luxury the planet cannot afford."

Who decides when something is luxurious? And where does this end? Should we outlaw air conditioning or TV satellite boxes because some people find them luxurious? Should we ban private cars wherever public transport is available to move us from A to B with fewer CO2 emissions?

It makes sense to reflect the cost of CO2 (among many other factors) in the price paid to drive our cars or heat our patios; but when the phase-out proceeds more slowly than some lawmakers wish, a ban is not the right solution.

Real reductions in carbon emissions will occur only when better technology makes it worthwhile for individuals and businesses to change their behavior. CFLs and other advances can take us part of the way, but there are massive technological hurdles to overcome before fossil fuels generally become less attractive than greener alternatives.

This is where a lot of policymakers get it wrong. Governments talk far too much about setting a relatively high carbon tax on emissions while focusing far too little on ensuring a meaningful increase in research and development to bring about necessary breakthroughs.

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Limiting access to the "wrong" light bulbs or patio heaters is, ultimately, not the right path. We will only solve global warming by ensuring that alternative technologies are better than our current options. Then people the world over will choose to use them.

This article comes from Project Syndicate.

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