Where else but the Washington Post editorial page — that bastion of un-fact-checked disinformation – would you find a misleading and misguided piece attacking federal efficiency standards written by a guy who “teaches environmental ethics”?!  Or is that “!?”

Now I can see a libertarian writing a misleading op-ed in defense of inefficient incandescent light bulbs — heck, they don’t much like government mandates for air bags.  But a true environmental ethicist would be shouting from the mountaintop — or at least from his blog — that we have grievously violated every principle of intergenerational ethics in creating this global Ponzi scheme, whereby current generations have figured out how to live off the wealth of future generations.  We have been stealing from our children and grandchildren an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and, the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all — a livable climate.

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But David Henderson (pictured above), who “teaches environmental ethics in the philosophy and religion department at Western Carolina University,” says government has no business creating environmental or efficiency standards for lightbulbs.  His muddled piece, “Let There Be (Incandescent) Light,” perpetuates one enormous myth — that somehow clean energy generation alone without energy efficiency can solve our energy and environmental problems — and a bunch of smaller ones.

On the one hand, Henderson acknowledges that the 2007 federal “minimum efficiency requirements for lighting” do not actually ban any technology (as the EU standards do) and that “there may very well be some improved incandescents on the market that will” meet the standard.  On the other hand, he keeps calling the minimum standard a “similar ban” to the EU asserting “this ban is still a bad idea.”

It’s not a ban.  As the NYT reported in a major article back in July, “Incandescent Bulbs Return to the Cutting Edge”:


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Caption:  “A standard incandescent bulb, left, and a more efficient one using Deposition Sciences technology.”

When Congress passed a new energy law two years ago, obituaries were written for the incandescent light bulb. The law set tough efficiency standards, due to take effect in 2012, that no traditional incandescent bulb on the market could meet, and a century-old technology that helped create the modern world seemed to be doomed.But as it turns out, the obituaries were premature.

Researchers across the country have been racing to breathe new life into Thomas Edison’s light bulb, a pursuit that accelerated with the new legislation. Amid that footrace, one company is already marketing limited quantities of incandescent bulbs that meet the 2012 standard, and researchers are promising a wave of innovative products in the next few years.

Indeed, the incandescent bulb is turning into a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation.

“There’s a massive misperception that incandescents are going away quickly,” said Chris Calwell, a researcher with Ecos Consulting who studies the bulb market. “There have been more incandescent innovations in the last three years than in the last two decades.”

… Osram will introduce a new line of incandescents in September that are 25 percent more efficient. The bulbs will feature a redesigned capsule with higher-quality gas inside and will sell for a starting price of about $3. That is less than the Philips product already on the market, but they will have shorter life spans. G.E. also plans to introduce a line of household incandescents that will comply with the new standards.

Some people might well consider this a resounding success.  Given that the entire world — including rapidly growing markets like China and India — are fast moving towards aggressive energy efficiency policies, pushing U.S. industry towards cleantech is a doubly smart strategy.  It reduces pollution while generating new jobs.

As Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter — arguably America’s leading authority on competitiveness — explained in Scientific American way back in 1991, “in the broader economy, strict standards may actually foster competitiveness” (see “Why the United States REQUIRES a strong climate bill to remain competitive“).

But Henderson wants none of it:

That this change is manifest in our daily lives makes it a meaningful and encouraging option, but it should be just that: a voluntary option. Light bulbs are a poor choice for regulation. Is there an overriding reason to regulate how Americans light their homes?

It’s true that compact fluorescent lights are widely appreciated among those with heightened “green” sensibilities. They are a welcome option for those who are trying to reduce their environmental impact. Replacing bulbs may be a small measure, but it is also something that can be done by people who may feel powerless or frustrated before the larger problems besetting our planet.

There is of course one very practical, overriding reason to put in place national energy efficiency standards.  If the federal government doesn’t do it, then individual states will put in place standards and that will severely complicate things for lightbulb manufacturers.  Indeed, back in the 1980s, the makers of many energy-consuming products actually went to Congress asking for national standards precisely because individual states were starting to regulate appliances and doing so inconsistently, forcing companies to meet multiple standards.

But, for now, let’s take this critique strictly on the basis of environmental ethics — not a policy or political or competitiveness perspective.  And on that basis it is absurd.  Lighting remains one of the biggest energy consumers and an unbelievably inefficient one at that.  As the NYT notes, the voluntary approach hasn’t worked that well:

Despite a decade of campaigns by the government and utilities to persuade people to switch to energy-saving compact fluorescents, incandescent bulbs still occupy an estimated 90 percent of household sockets in the United States.

For those who don’t care about environmental ethics, I suppose that is reason enough to do nothing.  But we owe it to future generations not to use up all their resources and leave them a ruined cl
imate.  And the rich countries have an ethical obligation to act first — since we are responsible for most of the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and since we got rich polluting.

But wait, says Henderson, government shouldn’t focus on efficiency, it should focus on direct emissions:

The environmental benefits of using only compact fluorescent bulbs are indirect — and less than what could be realized by changing standards governing, for example, coal use. Consider: The benefit of “reducing inefficiency” depends on where the energy is coming from. Improving efficiency without eliminating a harmful source may just free energy that is then used elsewhere. If there is no net reduction in energy use, where is the benefit? Direct regulation of harmful activities, such as putting firm limits on carbon emissions, is more likely to achieve the desired environmental result. (And this would only indirectly influence my bedroom decor.) A great deal of the wasted energy in lighting comes from excessive nighttime lighting in public spaces, which is an excellent issue for government to address. Banning traditional light bulbs as used in private homes seems an effort in the name of environmental protection that has very little payoff.

Yes, it is hard to believe that was written by someone who teaches “environmental ethics” as opposed to, Bjorn Lomborg, who preaches a smorgasbord of half-truths aimed at persuading people not to act on the gravest environmental threat facing humanity.

First, apparently unbeknownst to Henderson, Congress — which is to say the American people — has been requiring the Department of Energy to institute energy efficiency standards for appliances for decades.  These technology forcing standards — combined with federal efficiency R&D have achieved staggering benefits — were analyzed by the National Academy of Sciences (see “Energy efficiency, Part 5: The highest documented rate of return of any federal program“), which found a staggering $30 billion payoff on an investment of just several million dollars:

Three energy-efficiency programs, costing approximately $11 million, produced nearly three-quarters of this benefit. Most significant were advances made in compressors for refrigerators and freezers, energy-efficient fluorescent-lighting components called electronic ballasts, and low-emission, or heat-resistant, window glass. Standards and regulations incorporating efficiencies attainable by these new technologies ensured that the technologies would be adopted nationwide, thus dramatically compounding their impact.

Second, the appliance standards to do not “just free energy that is then used elsewhere,” whatever the heck that means.  They save immense amounts of energy, as has been well documented.  Here, for instance, is the savings just from refrigerator standards (see long article here):

Refrigerator Energy Use in California

This is some $20 billion a year savings!  Some 40 large power plants were never built — and no doubt a lot of those would have been fossil fuel plants.

Third, Henderson seems unaware that the President and Congress, are, finally pursuing direct regulation of greenhouse gas emissions — but that all of the environmentalists and scientists and politicians involved in developing those regulations understand that energy efficiency standards are a cornerstone of achieving the maximum emissions reductions at the lowest possible cost (see “The triumph of energy efficiency: Waxman-Markey could save $3,900 per household and create 650,000 jobs by 2030“).  The standards are needed precisely because there are several well-known barriers to individuals optimizing efficiency.  As but one example, consumers typically invest with a much higher discount rate than is justified on environmental grounds.  Indeed, an environmental ethicist would normally recommend government use a discount rate in standard setting that is perhaps one-tenth that of the typical consumer buying an appliance.

Fourth, the payoff is huge.  The new light bulb standards that Obama announced earlier this year, which include (and extend) the the phase out of inefficient incandescent products Congress mandated in 2007 (i.e. under the Bush Administration) — which, again, is not “Banning traditional light bulbs” — will achieve the following benefits:

The new standards announced will save up to 1.2 trillion kilowatt-hours over thirty years, an amount about equal to the total consumption of all homes in the U.S. in one year.  Businesses and consumers will gain up to $35 billion in net savings and global warming carbon dioxide emissions will be cut by up to 594 million metric tons, an amount equal to the annual emissions of nearly 110 million cars.

Not chump change.

Fourth, relatedly, it is a complete myth that one can tackle climate change by focusing on power plant emissions while ignoring energy consumption.  Carbon-free energy is not limitless nor is it free nor is it without its own environmental impact.  That should be obvious to an environmental ethics teacher.  Anyone who doesn’t understand this, such as Henderson, must watch this talk by the brilliant physicist Saul Griffth.  I have been meaning to blog on this — and I’ll try to do a separate post soon.

Henderson ends with this stunning argument:

There is more political will behind environmental reform than is generally appreciated, but it is not unlimited. We should invest our political capital where it will be most effective, not burn it in compact fluorescents. Congress should regulate matters that require the force of law, such as banning mountaintop removal in coal mining and new coal-burning power plants. Leave people to change their own light bulbs.


An environmental ethicist making an argument based on his estimation of “political will.”  I’m not certain what the point of being an environmental ethicist is, if your final argument comes down to, “well, future generations, it was okay for me to recommend policies wasteful policies that take your resources and destroy your climate because I thought we lacked the political will needed to recommend what in fact ought to have been done on ethical grounds.”

What’s funny (or sad) about this particular argument is that Henderson gets it exactly backwards.  There has always been more political will for energy efficiency standards — that’s why we’ve had them for decades and the one that he is pointlessly complaining about was signed into law under the administration of George Bush and Dick Cheney!  He apparently faile
d to notice that, on the other hand, this country has failed to ever regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new coal burning power plants — and Bush and Cheney actively blocked efforts to do so.

So, yes, this is easily the worst article ever written by an environmental ethicist I have ever seen, but that just means its another typical piece of crap published by Fred Hiatt and the Washington Post.

See, also, “Let’s Ban the Light Bulb Confusion” by Dr. Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

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