Bans, taxes, or nothing


in Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

Bridge over the Rideau Canal, with art

A former chairman of Shell has argued that the European Union should ban cars that get fewer than 35 miles per gallon. The basic idea is that there is no reason for cars to be less efficient than that and the new ones that do more poorly are intolerable luxury items. Forcing all cars to meet the standard is presented as a way of making the rich “do their share” when it comes to climate change.

Similar arguments exist about lightbulbs. Should governments ban incandescent bulbs, impose extra taxes on them, or do nothing? The last option won’t help with climate change mitigation. The middle option risks dividing the world between an upper class nicely lit in flattering yellow hues and an underclass rendered corpselike by flickering green compact fluorescent bulbs. Banning the bulbs outright could prevent their use in the few situations in which they are genuinely highly valuable, as evidenced by the willingness of their owners to cut emissions in other areas in order to not have to give them up.

The ideal solution is sustainable, tradeable carbon allowances. Everyone on earth gets about 750kg a year, and are free to trade it between them. Yes, the poor will sell to the rich, but they will do so voluntarily because the money is worth more to them than their emissions are. This certainly isn’t perfect (people may sell under duress or still lack sufficient means for a decent life), but it’s better than the ‘grab what you can’ approach that dominates presently. Of course, this allowance approach is hopelessly unrealistic. The emissions of people in the rich world are so far above what’s sustainable, they would never sign on to a system that required them to cut back as far as is appropriate.

Another big question has to do with induced technological change. Automakers will howl to the moon if you demand that they make 35mpg cars across the board. Sputtering, they will swear that it is impossible and even trying will bankrupt them. Actually forced to do so, however, it is probable they would squeak over the line. The question is whether such a policy would have benefits that outweigh the associated costs – including the perceived loss of liberty on the part of car makers and car owners.

How then do policymakers reconcile the possible with the fair, the risks associated with climate change and the reality of other social and equitable issues? The idea of forcing manufacturers of luxury cars to turn out models that get 50mpg does have appeal, but it is probably a mistake to conflate the fighting of climate change with the desire to reduce the profligacy of the wealthy. Excessive emissions are the behaviour properly targeted by climate policies: not pompous displays of extravagance. Mandated standards do have a role to play in situations where elasticity of demand is weak and there are possibilities for structural change. Those, in combination with carbon pricing, do have the capacity to help us move to a low-carbon economy. The devil of that transition, as ever, is in the details.

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{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty February 4, 2008 at 10:39 am

Nice photo. I like the contrast between the arches and the straight lines in the blue light.

tris February 4, 2008 at 11:33 am

As usual, these kinds of bans are called for by people who know nothing about the subject they are imposing a ban on. What is efficiency for a car? When I drive my fathers suburban with 7 people and all their gear, is that inefficiently? You would need 2 35mpg honda civics to do it, so its unclear how, since I burn less than 2 honda civics, I’m being inefficient.

If you say that’s no good because its a rarity, you make a rule which encourages people to use their car as single-occupancy commuter boxes, do we want to encourage that?

It would make far more sense to charge a per km “gas guzzler” tax, so that people who wish to buy large vehicles pay a penalty proportional to how much they use them.

Also, it is important to consider that when we replace our suburban, we would like to do so with another suburban, but this one would get 20-30% better mileage while fulfilling the same task. You yourself posted recently on why its in SUVs that the largest fuel efficiency gains can be made – because 20% of 15mpg is a lot.

But lastly, this whole scheme ignores that driving style impacts fuel economy as much as driving a car one class bigger or smaller. If you take a 15mpg truck according to the government numbers, and drive it at 50mph instead of 70, all of a sudden you’re getting about 20mpg. Wierd eh? If we really want to reduce mass oil consumption – we should drop the national speed limit to 55mph because this reduces the consumption possible by all vehicles. And then, it needs to be enforced not on safety rhetoric (it isn’t noticeably safer to drive slower) but on climate change moral rhetoric.

As for light bulbs, no one understand the perverse effects discrete lighting has on the human mind. However, if you go talk to people, many will tell you that fluorescent lights do in fact bother them. What are the hidden physiological and psychological costs of these “energy efficient” lights? We don’t know. So, it’s a good idea not to ban the alternative but rather to let people decide for themselves how much light they want, and how much energy they wish to consume.

tristan February 4, 2008 at 11:34 am

I’d also like to make a comment as to why the approach of banning certain products is like diet cola.

Either, “Use the appropriate amount of light”, or “use all the light you want because its fluorescent!”

Either, “Ration your driving, take transit, don’t drive needlessly”, or “Drive all the fuck you want because your car is 50mpg/electric/powered by your own sense of self satisfaction!”

tristan February 4, 2008 at 12:41 pm

As for legislating improvement amoung the US car manafacturing sector, of course you are right. But it is no use legislating “35mpg across the board” – what would be useful would be a formula of the sort “the vehicle must get X miles per gallon per pound”, on a non-linear scale.

It’s absolutely the case that cars you buy in the US now get horrible mileage because the market prefers more power rather than more mileage. Cars today get barely better mileage than my 20 year old ford taurus, and with an engine of about the same size. However, from that same size engine, which in my case produces 140hp, they can now easily get 250hp. This means an everyday family car is faster than a Ferrari from the mid 80s. And we wonder why the mileage numbers havn’t gone up.

Tom February 4, 2008 at 1:31 pm

When it comes to light bulbs, the sensible approach is probably to require a certain level of efficiency in terms of watts per lumen. That way, you can drive technological innovation and reduce energy consumption without strictly requiring one technology or another.

Tom February 4, 2008 at 1:34 pm

The ideal solution is sustainable, tradeable carbon allowances. Everyone on earth gets about 750kg a year, and are free to trade it between them. Yes, the poor will sell to the rich, but they will do so voluntarily because the money is worth more to them than their emissions are.

A global solution is hopelessly impractical. A better approach would work nationally. Everyone gets credits equal to the mean per-capita emissions for 2007. Each year, the allocations fall by some percentage: perhaps 2% to start but increasing with time. Industries that want to emit gasses need to buy permits from private individuals, who must also use them for their own emissions. Eventually, the whole system is tightened to the point where per-capita emissions are 750kg rather than 23,000kg.

Tristan February 4, 2008 at 5:21 pm


Your comment about lightbulbs reveals a fundamental miscomprehension of the only ways light can be produced. Light can be produced as a black body curve by heating something up real hot. This is the only kind of light humans had ever seen (other than phospheresant undersea creatures) until the fluorescant bulb. The fluorescant buld produces much more lumens per watt because all the radiation is produced at a single or a small group of frequencies, however, as I often argue, the effects of producing light in this artificial way are unknown and worrying. Therefore, it seems perverse for the state to ban the use of lights that are not discrete – we don’t want the state taking away our lights!

As for how many watts are consumed per lumen its not something technology can improve given a certain kind of technology – only by inventing new technologies. The only improvement possible to the incandescant bulb while remaining a black body source of light is the halogen bulb. Because the gas in a halogen bulb allows the filament not to burn up at 5000 degrees (not accidentally, 5000 is the temperature of our sun and the colour we see as ‘white’), it is more efficient than a bulb producing a black body curve that peaks at 2500 degrees – because more of the radiation it produces is in the visual spectrum.

One thing to consider when we talk about improving the efficiency of individual lightbulbs is how insane it looks when you look at energy as a system. Seen as a system, you notice how when you have a furnace, it comes on more often when you have less incandescent lightbulbs on – because everything coming out of that lightbulb is radiant heat (its only interesting as distinct from an electric heater because alot of that heat can be seen by the human eye as light). Every drop of energy produced by that bulb heats your house – except the bit that escapes out the window. So, when we say a lightbulb is inefficiently this is only in the summer – when less light is needed. So when we say more efficient light bulbs will save some amount of energy, it is likely that they will save less than half of that energy when you take into account the extra energy necessary for heating.

Milan February 4, 2008 at 7:54 pm

[T]he effects of producing light in this artificial way are unknown and worrying. Therefore, it seems perverse for the state to ban the use of lights that are not discrete – we don’t want the state taking away our lights!

There are all sorts of new and unusual things people are being exposed to now, from flame retardants in mattresses to food additives. Do you have any evidence to suggest that compact fluorescents are dangerous in some way?

tristan February 4, 2008 at 9:18 pm

“from flame retardants in mattresses to food additives. Do you have any evidence to suggest that compact fluorescents are dangerous in some way?”

Consider the incentives in the production of such “evidence”. Consider that even today with cell phones, there is documented evidence that using them before bed prevents people from sleeping. The solution? Don’t use them before bed. They still will not admit they are dangorous (they really heat up the brain!).

In other words the connection between “scientific evidence” and the existence of real danger is happen-chance at best. In this case, there is simply massive annecdotal evidence that people get headaches from fluorescent lights.

Of course the studies I’m calling for – such as long term effects of discrete lighting on office employees, would be very expensive. But when you consider the fact that humans have for millions of years had everything lit in one way, and now almost all artificial light is radically different from that sort of light, it does seem like a cause for concern.

Consider this: our sensitivity to light radiation evolved to suit the black body radiation pattern of the sun. That’s why when you overset the visible spectrum on the solar spectrum, we can see the strongest frequencies. If the sun gave off light of the kind we look at now, we would have evolved in a drastically different way. I can’t do the physics off the top of my head, but I would guess this would be an easy problem for an evolutionary biologist to answer.

Milan February 4, 2008 at 11:19 pm

Yes, most human experience has been with light of many wavelengths. Black body radiation is something quite different.

That doesn’t change that your assertion that compact fluorescent lights are dangerous is anything but speculation. Please provide some data.

Milan February 4, 2008 at 11:21 pm

On the matter of incentives, look at the mint that lawyers have made off of asbestos. If they could prove that something as ubiquitous as cell phones or fluorescent lights were dangerous, there would be a strong financial imperative to do so, especially in the United States.

tristan February 5, 2008 at 5:46 am

No, “blackbody radiation” is not something else.

Blackbody radiation is a model we use to simplify the frequency/intensity curves of radiation that bodies give off when they heat up. It’s called “blackbody” because we assume the body to be when hot, black – in other words it does not reflect any light. If it did reflect light, it could not obey this rule because there would be some other light in there messing it up. In practice, things like the sun, and fillaments in incandescant lightbulbs are blackbody.

When someone refers to a “blackbody curve” the really essential thing they are referring to is how the light is spread out smoothly over the spectrum. Compare that with fluorescent light where you get 100 or 1000 times as much intensity at one particular frequency.

I’m sorry that I’m not up to my knees in scientific documentation, but I will repeat my point: there do in fact exist situations where its in the elites best interests that something simply does not get researched. The fact that we would evolved very differently, or at least our eyes would have, if the sun was actually a florescent bulb should be enough to worry anyone.

Milan February 5, 2008 at 9:33 am

The fact that we would evolved very differently, or at least our eyes would have, if the sun was actually a florescent bulb should be enough to worry anyone.

I don’t see why this is necessarily the case. It is plausible that a sun with different wavelengths of dominant light would affect the course of biological evolution, both in terms of visual sensory organs and biological components that otherwise interact with sunlight (skin, chloroplasts, etc). It is a leap in logic to say that, on account of that, compact fluorescent lights are harmful.

One piece of real data – a study, and experiment demonstrating adverse cognitive effects – has much more value than continued speculation and assertion.

There do in fact exist situations where its in the elites best interests that something simply does not get researched.

Quite possibly, but elites are not all powerful. If fluorescent lights were having big negative effects on people, someone would have come up with some evidence by now. A vast shadowy government conspiracy designed to protect the reputation of fluorescent bulbs is pretty unlikely. Indeed, given entrenched interests, it is more likely that continued manufacture of incandescent bulbs serves elites.

. February 5, 2008 at 10:22 am

Compact Fluorescent Lamps: What You Should Know

Flicker can occasionally produce headaches and eyestrain in some people. The 60-Hz flow of electrons through the compact fluorescent lamp results in a 120-Hz fluctuation in the UV radiation incident on the phosphor coating. The stable nature of phosphorescence smooths out the effect of this cycle, but the instantaneous variations in fluorescent light output known as flicker still occur. The 120-Hz variation is too fast to be seen by most human eyes, but a stroboscopic effect can be observed when rapidly moving or rotating objects are viewed. High-frequency ballasts that send current through the lamp at frequencies up to 40 kHz can be used to prevent flicker problems.

In addition, the physical appearance and brightness of luminaires can affect one’s impressions of brightness in a space. Light from CF lamps, in comparison to incandescent lamps, is typically more uniformly distributed over a larger portion of the lamp surface area. One might therefore propose that these differences in luminous distributions could affect one’s impressions of the brightness of the space. These potential psychological effects are currently being studied.

. February 5, 2008 at 10:24 am
tristan February 5, 2008 at 2:14 pm

“elites are not powerful”

This is a tautological falsity. “Elite” simply means, “those who have the power”, “those whose interests are taken into account”.

Also, it is not a leap in logic. The argument states merely that we evolved with one particular kind of light in mind, and now we are producing light which at first appears similar but under more thorough investigation is very different. Our retinas would work very differently if the sun was a compact fluoresant, because there are some frequencies it simply fails to emit. When a frequency is not emmited, it cannot be reflected. In other words, we would likely be ‘blind” a whole slew of colours between colours.

This also brings up the question – if CFs miss frequencies, what are we seeing when we see objects lit up by them? We obviously see very different colour signatures since certain frequencies are simply left out.

Milan February 5, 2008 at 2:20 pm

elites are not all powerful

Furthermore, they are not always in agreement. It is improbable that lightbulb barons have wide-reaching powers to suppress the emergence of scientific evidence from anywhere. The fact that you haven’t presented any at all suggests that there isn’t much to be found.

When a frequency is not emmited, it cannot be reflected. In other words, we would likely be ‘blind” a whole slew of colours between colours.

I understand what you are saying, but there is no reason to go from thinking this to thinking CFLs are harmful. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that the biochemistry of retinal cones and rods means that even beings that evolved under a star that produces light in narrow bands of wavelengths would still be able to see other colours.

It is also perhaps worth noting that not all living things on earth see the same range of wavelengths. Some can see further into the red than we can, some further into the violet, and some further in both directions. This seems to be a fairly limited adaptive capability, not something of massive importance to the overall well-being of an animal.

. February 5, 2008 at 2:43 pm

The Case for CFLs
Compact fluorescent light bulbs are safe, and they look great, too.

By Brendan I. Koerner

“The case against CFLs is built largely on half-truths and innuendo. Yes, the energy-saving bulbs contain mercury, a neurotoxin responsible for a tremendous amount of human suffering over the years. And safely recycling CFLs remains far more difficult than it should be. But these facts don’t justify sticking with inefficient incandescent technology that has barely changed since the invention of the tungsten filament nearly a century ago…

The last, desperate swipe at CFLs—as elucidated by the Lantern’s colleague last week—is that their light is cold and dreadful. Perhaps this was true in years past, but the Lantern just doesn’t see it anymore: In a recent test, Popular Mechanics rated CFL light as far superior to that produced by incandescent bulbs. Don’t believe the hype? You’ve got nothing to lose by trying a single CFL bulb (one that’s received EnergyStar certification) and seeing for yourself. And then, once you’ve become a convert, please spread the word.”

tristan February 5, 2008 at 8:16 pm

I’m going to drop the CFL spectrum argument, and simply re-iterate my more important claim that the energy saving numbers are grlosely exagerated because the ignore the fact energy is a system.

Lightbulbs are heaters. Heat that doesn’t come from lightbulbs comes from the furnace. Lightbulbs are more efficient heaters than furnaces because they heat specifically the area of the house you use, and at the time you are using it.

Heating is not required in the summer, but, there is much more sun in the summer. So not only are the savings bills 50% of what they claim they are (presuming the furnace is on half the time), they are much less than this because we likely use lights for 3 to 5 hours less a day in the summer on average.

. February 7, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Lights to go out on inefficient bulbs by 2012
Last Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2007 | 12:31 PM ET

The federal government will ban the sale of inefficient light bulbs by 2012 in a move to reduce energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gases, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn said Wednesday.

“The federal government will ban the sale of inefficient light bulbs by 2012 in a move to reduce energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gases, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn said Wednesday.

Lunn said the ban would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than six million tonnes a year, saving homeowners about $60 annually in electricity costs.”

. February 8, 2008 at 2:30 pm

Phasing Out Incandescent Light Bulbs

The Government is developing regulations under the Energy Efficiency Act that will phase out the use of inefficient incandescent light bulbs in most areas of regular use by 2012. The regulations will ensure customers that the lighting choices they make will always meet a high standard of energy efficiency. The new standards will also provide certainty for manufacturers and support investments in new products they will meet both the Government’s standards and the public’s demand for efficient lighting sources. The Government’s efforts to regulate lighting efficiency will lead to 5.70 Mt of expected reductions for 2012. This amount is included in the table above for Regulating Energy Efficiency.

. February 12, 2008 at 10:34 am

Welcoming our new efficiency overlords

By Adam Stein

The so-called incandescent light bulb ban (not actually a ban) included as part of the recent energy bill has prompted a low-level but consistent set of complaints that deserve further consideration, because they betray a fair amount of confusion about the which policy tools to break out for which issues.

On the right, the reaction to the new lighting efficiency standard has ranged from hysterical whining to hysterical snark. But even on the left, it’s fairly common to run across the high-minded opinion that finicky legislation like the lighting efficiency standard only wastes time and stirs up needless recrimination. Instead we should set a price on carbon, and let the market sort out the rest.

It’s an excellent theory, one that I subscribe to under most circumstances, but sometimes command and control really is just the thing. The math on light bulbs is pretty easy to run. Follow along if you’re interested, or just skip the next two paragraphs.

Anon February 12, 2008 at 10:36 am

Okay, tell me what is wrong with the following reasoning:

If I replace all my incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, I can cut my electricity usage for lighting by about 75%. I get approximately the same amount of light, which means that the 75% of energy was going somewhere. As it can’t just vanish, it must have ended up as heat in my home. I live in Canada, and heat my home for about 8 months of the year. My heater is controlled by thermostat (lets assume I don’t adjust it), which means if the lightbulbs stop contributing to heating my home, the furnace has to make up the difference. So for eight months of the year, there is no net energy saving.

Worse, my lights are powered by 100% renewable electricity (kindly supplied by a company called Bullfrog power). My furnace is powered by natural gas. So for eight months of the year, my new lightbulbs actually result in a net increase in CO2 emissions.

During the summer I might need to cool the house with an airconditioner for, say, 1 month. In that month, the old lightbulbs were working against the air conditioner. But of course, that’s the month with the most daylight, so it’s the month when I use the lights the least.

If this reasoning is correct, it means that changing the lightbulbs is pretty irrelevant in colder climates, even for people not getting their electricity from renewables. If I take into account the extra impact of the manufacture of compact fluorescents, and the fact that my electricity supply is 100% renewable, whereas my heating isn’t, replacing my bulbs actually increases my carbon footprint.

Milan March 17, 2008 at 10:45 am

Switching off incandescents a no-brainer?

“We know that between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the electricity that flows into old-style incandescent bulbs is used to support its primary purpose, which is to produce light. CFLs, on the other hand, are between four and fives times more efficient.

When former energy minister Dwight Duncan announced a year ago that Ontario plans to ban the sale of inefficient incandescent bulbs in the province by 2012, he pointed out that the 87 million incandescent bulbs being used in Ontario homes and businesses were wasting enough electricity to power 600,000 homes.

Electricity that isn’t used to produce light is released into the ambient air as heat. In the summer, and in year-round hot spots such as California, this heat energy is truly wasted. In fact, it makes our air conditioners work harder – a double-whammy that makes the switch to CFLs a no-brainer.”

Milan March 17, 2008 at 10:47 am

If you live in Alberta, which relies heavily on fossil fuels for both its power generation and home heating, then switching to CFLs always makes sense.

It’s simply more efficient to heat your home using, say, a natural gas furnace, rather than using dirty electricity from the grid to power a resistance heater.

Milan March 17, 2008 at 10:47 am

In provinces such as Manitoba and Quebec, which rely primarily on emission-free electricity, you can come to the opposite conclusion. Using clean hydropower to light up an incandescent bulb and fill your home with residual heat during the winter will release fewer greenhouse gases than using a natural gas furnace to provide that same amount of heat.

“If all homes in Quebec were required to switch from (incandescent) bulbs to CFLs, there would be an increase of almost 220,000 tonnes in CO{-2} emissions in the province, equivalent to the annual emissions from more than 40,000 automobiles,” the paper suggests.

“In fact, this amount will increase in future as homes move away from electric space heating to cheaper and more efficient fossil fuel sources.”

. March 27, 2008 at 10:01 am

For the last time, switch to CFLs
Please don’t use incandescent bulbs for heating

“From either an energy or a CO2 perspective, incandescents are a big loser. If you really like electric resistance heat, buy the best portable forced air heater — it’s is still infinitely better than using an incandescent for heat from a CO2 perspective. It doesn’t really matter what the source of your electricity is, since energy around Canada and North America is fungible (and we don’t yet have an oversupply of zero carbon electricity).

But again if you really prefer heating your house with electricity because you have zero-carbon electricity, then buy an electric heat pump — if you have one, then dump your incandescent, the heat pump is much more efficient. For a new home or gut rehab, get a geothermal heating and cooling system. Plus better insulation of course.

This is especially true if you do any significant amount of air-conditioning during the year — which certainly most commercial office buildings do in Canada — and I’m guessing many people run air-conditioning in your homes in Toronto during the summer (certainly that will become more common thanks to global warming).

I can assure you that if you were to do the life-cycle analysis in detail, you’d find that keeping incandescents for the heat value is an energy/climate loser.”

. February 26, 2009 at 4:48 pm

The problem with incandescent light bulbs, everyone keeps telling me, is that they waste lots of energy producing heat instead of light. So if I switched to a fluorescent bulb, wouldn’t my heater need to work a little harder to keep me warm?
The quick answer is yes—but the folks who calculate the energy savings from compact fluorescent lamps have already taken your question into account. It’s true that switching to fluorescent bulbs may increase your heating bill ever so slightly in the winter. But it’s still worth your time and money to make the switch. First, an obvious point: You’re likely to use your light bulbs every day, but unless you live at polar latitude, you probably aren’t running your heater year-round. In the summertime, your air conditioner may need more energy to offset the heat from the incandescents. Second, most people don’t heat their homes with electricity—they use other fuel sources like natural gas that produce less carbon per unit of energy. Surprisingly enough, it’s more efficient to warm your house with a heater than a light bulb. (The same arguments apply to any modern appliance that saves energy by operating at lower temperatures.)

. May 4, 2009 at 10:54 am

Do compact fluorescent light bulbs really save you money?

It’s true that the CFL bulbs cost more than incandescent bulbs, but they also last longer (typically 5yrs.) and are supposed to save you enough money to recover that cost. I wanted to find out if that was true. So I switched the three 60W incandescent bulbs in the floor lamp with 13W CFL bulbs and I switched the 3-way bulb with a 26W CFL. FYI: a 13W CFL is the equivalent to a 60W incandescent. Same goes for the 26W CFL and 100W incandescent.

The results of an hour long Kill-A-Watt test showed that the same floor lamp with CFL bulbs costs $0.00 per hour, $0.11 per day, $0.78 per week, $3.34 per month and $40.71 per year. Big difference from the $205.00 per year that the same lamp with incandescent bulbs would cost! Yes, I know those prices are for running the lamp 24/7, but if you think about all the time you have lights on in your house, you’ll soon realize how much money you could be saving if you decide to switch to CFL bulbs. Wow, Al Gore would be proud of me ;o)

. May 26, 2009 at 1:51 pm

“There is no point in my switching off lights, TVs, and phone chargers during the winter. The ‘wasted’ energy they put out heats my home, so it’s not wasted.”

This myth is True for a few people, but only during the winter; but False for most.

If your house is being heated by electricity through ordinary bar fires or blower heaters then, yes, it’s much the same as heating the house with any electricity-wasting appliances. But if you are in this situation, you should change the way you heat your house. Electricity is high-grade energy, and heat is low-grade energy. It’s a waste to turn electricity into heat. To be precise, if you make only one unit of heat from a unit of electricity, that’s a waste. Heaters called air-source heat pumps or ground-source heat pumps can do much better, delivering 3 or 4 units of heat for every unit of electricity consumed. They work like back-to-front refrigerators, pumping heat into your house from the outside air (see Chapter 21).

For the rest, whose homes are heated by fossil fuels or biofuels, it’s a good idea to avoid using electrical gadgets as a heat source for your home – at least for as long as our increases in electricity-demand are served from fossil fuels. It’s better to burn the fossil fuel at home. The point is, if you use electricity from an ordinary fossil power station, more than half of the energy from the fossil fuel goes sadly up the cooling tower. Of the energy that gets turned into electricity, about 8% is lost in the transmission system. If you burn the fossil fuel in your home, more of the energy goes directly into making hot air for you.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 1:55 pm

I think the MacKay argument above (finally) settles this discussion. Firstly, it doesn’t make sense to use electricity for heating when it is being generated from fossil fuels. Secondly, if you are going to use electricity for heating, use it to run heat pumps, not inefficient lights or gadgets.

tristan May 28, 2009 at 10:41 am

What if you have a fossil fuel furnace that isn’t forced air. Even if you do have a forced air furnace, the losses are a lot more than 8%. It’s not like you actually project the exhaust gases of the furnace into your home! The heat is exchanged from the exhaust gases to the fresh air heating your home by way of a heat exchanger. And, even to give the amount of heat exchanged isn’t the efficiency figure because you need to compare that against using hot water to heat your home, where you don’t have to pull as much cool air in as you do if all forced air must be external. You could get around this with part recirculation, but I think that’s illegal.

It’s quite possible than 60% of the energy from burning fossil fuels escapes and doesn’t end up in your house.

Lights are not inefficient sources of heat – compared to any conventional heater, they are 100% efficient. Every single bit of energy they use turns into heat. That’s true for every appliance as well, and even stereos (where do you think the energy from the sound goes when you turn it off? Oh ya – its turned into heat).

Ya, sure, heat pumps are better. But who has a heat pump? Not exactly conventional technology.

Lights have the advantage of heating your home where you happen to be – they make your home feel warmer than it is, because the areas you are in are disproportionately warm (if you turn your lights out when you leave a room). That lets you set the thermostat lower. Also, since you feel the heat from the lights, you have direct perception of the energy you’re using, and that makes me less likely at least to open a window when the furnace is running.

Honestly, this Mackay guy hasn’t made a single convincing argument where it sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. It almost sounds like he’s learned everything through books rather than through doing.

. June 1, 2009 at 5:14 pm

May 29, 2009, 9:35 am
Can Incandescent Bulbs Compete on Efficiency?
By Leora Broydo Vestel

The race to find more efficient lighting technologies appears to have an unlikely dark horse: the incandescent light bulb.

While traditional incandescents will soon be phased out in the United States and abroad, researchers are plugging away to create more efficient versions that comply with looming new standards — while also providing an alternative for consumers who find compact fluorescents objectionable.

Scientists at the University of Rochester gave Green Inc. an advanced peek at their newly-developed method for nearly doubling the efficiency of an incandescent by blackening the tungsten filament with a short pulse laser. The results of their work will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.

According to the Chunlei Guo, an associate professor of optics at the university, the laser process creates a unique array of tiny structures on the surface of the filament, making it more effective at radiating light. Regular incandescent bulbs convert only about 10 percent of the energy used into light, while the rest is emitted as heat.

“With the same electric power input the lamp is about twice as bright,” said Mr. Guo. And though the technology is still in the early stages of development, Mr. Guo believes it would not be difficult for bulb companies to add a tungsten blackening step to the manufacturing process. “The implementation should be fairly straightforward,” he said.

. June 11, 2009 at 2:41 pm

“Heat pumps are superior in efficiency to condensing boilers, even if the heat pumps are powered by electricity from a power station burning natural gas. If you want to heat lots of buildings using natural gas, you could install condensing boilers, which are “90% efficient,” or you could send the same gas to a new gas power station making electricity and install electricity-powered heat pumps in all the buildings; the second solution’s efficiency would be somewhere between 140% and 185%. It’s not necessary to dig big holes in the garden and install underfloor heating to get the benefits of heat pumps; the best air-source heat pumps (which require just a small external box, like an air-conditioner’s) can deliver hot water to normal radiators with a coefficient of performance above 3.”

. June 11, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Air-source Heat Pumps
Natural Resources Canada

In Canada, where air temperatures can go below –30°C, and where winter ground temperatures are generally in the range of –2°C to 4°C, earth-energy systems have a coefficient of performance (COP) of between 2.5 and 3.8.

A ground water EES installation in southern Canada will have a heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) of between 10.7 and 12.8, compared with an HSPF of 3.4 for electrical-resistance heating. Similarly, a closed-loop EES in southern Canada will have an HSPF of between 9.2 and 11.0, with the higher value achieved by the most efficient closed-loop heat pump available.

Energy Savings

Earth-energy systems will reduce your heating and cooling costs substantially. Energy-cost savings compared with electric furnaces are around 65 percent.

On average, an EES will yield savings that are about 40 percent more than would be provided by an air-source heat pump. This is due to the fact that underground temperatures are higher in winter than air temperatures. As a result, an EES can provide more heat over the course of the winter than an air-source heat pump.

Milan June 19, 2009 at 4:37 pm


Not a lot of people have heat pumps now, it is true, but they seem almost certain to be an ascendant technology. When they become highly common, the ‘100%’ efficient heat from electronics will be an inferior option, by comparison. Them becoming common seems virtually certain if hydrocarbon prices continue a long-term rising trend, as many are (perhaps wrongly) predicting.

The point about lights warning places where people are is fair enough, though the effect is probably minimal in ordinary lighting arrangements.

MacKay discusses the retrofitting of his own house in his book, suggesting that he has at least some practical experience.

Tristan June 19, 2009 at 11:21 pm

The question might come down to what do you value the most? Sure, heating my house partially by incandescant bulbs might be less efficient than using my heat pump – but if I’m willing to keep my house a few degrees colder and wear a sweater so I can have nice full spectrum lighting, I don’t think this should be illegal or despised. Basically, if energy is costed appropriately (which means fully co2 neutral, otherwise there are externalities I’m not paying for), then I should be allowed to consume as much as I’m willing to pay for.

It’s the exclusion of the future cost of C02 as an externality that makes the energy market immoral.

Milan June 21, 2009 at 10:51 pm

The prospects for a carbon price that internalizes the full social cost of carbon emerging during the next few years are very poor, in both the United States and Canada. With a fair discount rate, it would probably be at least several hundred dollars a tonne – a level that would be politically impossible to impose.

Given that, restricting access to inefficient technologies may be a necessary corollary. The longer we wait to take effective action, the harsher the restrictions will need to be when they are imposed.

. June 30, 2009 at 9:14 am

Obama Toughens Rules for Some Lighting

Published: June 29, 2009

President Obama announced tougher energy efficiency requirements for certain types of fluorescent and incandescent lighting on Monday, the latest step in the administration’s push to cut the country’s energy use.

The new rule , scheduled to take effect in 2012, will cut the amount of electricity used by affected lamps by 15 to 25 percent and save $1 billion to $4 billion a year for consumers, the White House said.

“Now I know light bulbs may not seem sexy,” Mr. Obama said, “but this simple action holds enormous promise because 7 percent of all the energy consumed in America is used to light our homes and our businesses.”

Of the two types of lighting covered by Monday’s announcement, the most important is “general service fluorescent lamps,” which commonly take the form of tubular office lights (but do not include the squiggly compact fluorescents commonly found in home lamps).

Milan July 7, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Honestly, this Mackay guy hasn’t made a single convincing argument where it sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. It almost sounds like he’s learned everything through books rather than through doing.

Errors and corrections in MacKay’s book. Feel free to contribute any you can identify.

New editions keep coming out (they are up to the third printing), so there is a reasonable chance that an error you point out will be fixed in a future printed volume.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Here’s a bit on adding air-source heat pumps by retrofit:

“First, let’s be clear about air-to-air heat pumps: they do NOT need air ducting. My department has got many of them retrofitted to it (photograph in the book, page 147). The internal air blower does NOT receive air from anywhere; it just receives two pipes of 1cm diameter, which carry warm water to the external bit, which can be 10s of metres away. So air source heat pumps can easily be retrofitted anywhere.”

. August 21, 2009 at 11:52 am

How to deal with incandescent excuses and ‘dim bulbs’
Posted 2:06 PM on 20 Aug 2009
by Lane Burt

The phase-out of incandescent bulbs in the European Union begins next month, so it’s time to get prepared for a new round of ridiculous excuses about why folks can’t use more efficient lights. Despite having been dealt with repeatedly, these seem to be dug up anytime lights make the news. Luckily, they seem to get more ludicrous and bizarre every time. Who knows what the advocates of wasting energy will come up with next? Here are some of my favorites.

They flicker all the time and it annoys me!

Oh really? Well you must be superman (or woman) because modern fluorescents flicker at a speed that is impossible for us mere mortals to detect.

Can I have your autograph?

CFLs flicker at 20,000 cycles per second. The most sensitive among us can detect 60 cycles per second. Big difference.

I would suggest ending the conversation if protests are made, because arguing with someone whose basic premise is their own inherent superiority is unlikely to get you anywhere.

The heat old bulbs put off will help me save on heating in the winter.

That heat is not going where you will feel it, so you will still reach for the thermostat. And you can add the cost of running the AC to get the waste heat out of the house in the summer. You will pay much more.

Why not use a heater that was designed for heating and a light that was designed for lighting instead of a terrible lamp that stinks at both?

. September 1, 2009 at 12:08 pm

End in sight for 100W light bulb

A European Union ban on the manufacture and import of 100 watt and frosted incandescent light bulbs, in use since the 19th Century, has come into force.

The EU wants the bulbs to be replaced mainly by longer-lasting compact fluorescent lamps.

The Energy Saving Trust says fluorescent lighting uses 80% less electricity than traditional bulbs.

. September 16, 2009 at 11:31 am

Panasonic’s New LED Bulbs Shine For 19 Years

“As lighting manufacturers phase out the incandescent bulb, and CFLs look set to define the future of lighting, Panasonic recently unveiled a remarkable 60-watt household LED bulb that they claim can last up to 19 years (if used 5-1/2 hours a day). With a lifespan 40 times longer than their incandescent counterparts, Panasonic’s new EverLed bulbs are the most efficient LEDs ever to be produced. They are set to debut in Japan on October 21st. Let’s hope that as the technology is refined their significant cost barrier will drop — $40 still seems pretty pricey for a light bulb, even one that promises to save $23 a year in energy costs.”

tristan's ghost October 5, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Tristan… you are a dumb mother-fucker…[“…heat pumps not conventional”] suck-off, do you even know what you are talking about… are you aware that you are alive and sentient, and that you are breathing air? Well that is a step up from what I would have guessed…..

Milan October 5, 2009 at 3:34 pm

You can’t say yes to climate change action while saying no to lots of potentially core solutions: greater energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, etc.

David MacKay expresses it well:

Given the general tendency of the public to say “no” to wind farms, “no” to nuclear power, “no” to tidal barrages – “no” to anything other than fossil fuel power systems – I am worried that we won’t actually get off fossil fuels when we need to. Instead, we’ll settle for half-measures: slightly-more-efficient fossil-fuel power stations, cars, and home heating systems; a fig-leaf of a carbon trading system; a sprinkling of wind turbines; an inadequate number of nuclear power stations.

Even in situations where the solutions create new risks, we cannot reject them reflexively while still claiming to be serious about solving the problem.

Tristan October 5, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Can I say yes to expensive solutions with which have less scary future side effects and no to cheap solutions which could poison large tracts of drinking water?

Milan October 5, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Which ones? Covering a large share of the world’s land with solar and wind farms, as well as energy crops?

Milan October 5, 2009 at 6:00 pm

One big question is how many ‘wedges’ we need, which depends on what final atmospheric concentration is safe.

If that figure is low – say, 350 ppm – we may need nuclear AND carbon capture AND energy efficiency AND carbon pricing AND bans on highly emitting activities AND bans on inefficient technologies AND covering the countryside with energy producing systems AND sharply curbing deforestation AND more.

We might even need to geoengineer, in addition to all that.

Tristan October 5, 2009 at 6:06 pm

My point in general is simply that when mitigating climate change, we need to weight the costs to future generations of the mitigation (i.e. in poisoned groundwater from CCS) against the costs of not mitigating (i.e. one wedge – the CCS wedge – more C02 emissions).

Milan October 5, 2009 at 6:08 pm

If you want to try and cook up your own solution for any particular stabilization level (350ppm, 450ppm, 550ppm, etc), you can use the Stabilization Wedge Game.

Milan October 5, 2009 at 6:11 pm

My point in general is simply that when mitigating climate change, we need to weight the costs to future generations of the mitigation

True, though this is not straightforward.

Firstly, there is the issue of potential irreversible and runaway climate effects. Allowing emissions that push us into a runaway scenario ending in severe threats to human civilization is worse than poisoning almost any amount of groundwater or suffering almost any number of nuclear accidents.

Secondly, there are huge issues of uncertainty. We don’t know how much mitigation is required. How do we balance a potentially catastrophic risk against the large but more quantifiable risks associated with things like nuclear power?

To me, at least, it certainly seems like the less dangerous options, such as massively increasing the cost of air travel and banning inefficient heating and lighting systems, would be implemented rapidly in an ideal world.

Milan October 5, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Finally, there is a difference between trying out an approach and committing to it 100%. CCS and new nuclear deployment would both take time to ramp up.

That would give an opportunity to better assess the risks and costs associated, as well as the costs of alternatives. The Monk Report didn’t say we shouldn’t be considering CCS at all, but rather that we need to have a better legal structure in place to assess what the costs and consequences of deployment will be.

There is a major risk of falling into fantasy when considering the potential of CCS. That being said, fantasy is best dismissed by actual experimentation and, when it comes to mitigation, we need to have as many arrows in our quiver as possible, just in case the climate turns out to be more sensitive than we feared.

Milan October 5, 2009 at 6:23 pm

If you want to read a good discussion of why we might want to mitigate very aggressively, and what doing so might look like in the case of the UK, I recommend George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.

His plan involves both a lot of government imposition of technologies and the use of CCS on natural gas plants. His plan mandates much higher construction standards, mandatory heat exchangers for homes, prohibiting standby modes for electronics, mandatory vacuum insulation in fridges, etc. It would also put extremely sharp constraints on the private use of cars. To come up with a plan that is less burdensome of individuals, you either need to demonstrate where cuts can be found that he hasn’t identified (and he is thorough and willing to cut deep) or argue that we don’t need to be as cautious as he thinks.

As I recall, his stance is quite anti-nuclear, so you might be able to get by with a major expansion of nuclear power and the partial reduction of some of his measures designed to restrain electricity use.

. October 5, 2009 at 6:25 pm
Milan October 5, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Perhaps the most sensible position on nuclear/CCS/geoengineering can be summed up by paraphrasing William Lyon Mackenzie King: “nuclear/CCS/geoengineering if necessary, but not necessarily nuclear/CCS/geoengineering.”

Milan October 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm

This article includes some mitigation projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

They expect that the business-as-usual course for emissions is an increase from about 28 gigatonnes of CO2 globally now to over 40 gigatonnes in 2030.

Using energy efficiency, renewables, biofuels, nuclear, and CCS, they think it is possible to keep emissions basically stable. The nuclear and CCS wedges seem moderately large, with renewables much bigger, and efficiency by far the biggest of all.

All that said, I think IEA figures are mostly quite dubious. Until recently, they just assumed that world energy production would continue to trail growing demand.

. October 13, 2009 at 5:32 pm

How many policies does it take to change a light bulb?
October 12, 2009

My friend Jonathan Rauch — who is undoubtedly one of the best columnists I know — hits what seems to me a rare wrong note in his current column in the National Journal (link subject to rot after a week or so, I think). Riffing off the incandescent light bulbs issue, he moves on to the “don’t regulate, just price carbon” argument. His case against compact fluorescents is that he, and many other consumers, doesn’t find them to be very good, and that the energy savings they make possible will be eaten up by the Jevons (or “rebound”) effect

In his fair minded way, Jon points to the strongest arguments on the other side, but I don’t think he gives them sufficient weight. In particular, as he says, the new marketplace is one where we can expect a great deal of competition in terms of better, cheaper and yet more efficient products. It seems to me that this is a really powerful point. With enlightened regulation, governments around the world (and it is important that this is happening in a synchronised way) are forcing innovation into a market where the low price and economies of scale of the previous incumbent technology made the barriers to entry very high. As John points out, if you don’t care much about energy costs, incandescents are a pretty good technology, which is why, as he also notes, compact fluorescents sat around for a long time not getting much better. Now we can foresee a creative free-for-all that will permit a range of new technologies to compete, and to change the manner in which things are lit more profoundly.

It is true that by banning incandescents governments are imposing a cost on current consumers who, like Jon, don’t like fluorescents. But for that one-time cost they are bringing into being a more permissive technological state of play with the potential for far more efficient and better products down the line.

. October 18, 2009 at 3:24 pm

California appears poised to be first to ban power-guzzling big-screen TVs

Industry lobbying efforts appear to elicit little sympathy from the state Energy Commission, which may vote as soon as Nov. 4.

. December 1, 2009 at 8:44 am

Lifecycle Energy Costs of LED, CFL Bulbs Calculated

“The NY Times is reporting on a new study from Osram, a German lighting manufacturer, which has calculated the total lifecycle energy costs of three lightbulb technologies and found that both LEDs and CFLs use approximately 20% of the energy of incandescents over their lifetimes. While it is well known that the newer lighting technologies use a fraction of the energy of incandescents to produce the same amount of light, it has not been proven whether higher manufacturing energy costs kept the new lighting from offering a net gain. The study found that the manufacturing and distribution energy costs of all lightbulb technologies are only about 2% of their total lifetime energy cost — a tiny fraction of the energy used to produce light.” The study uses the assumption that LEDs last 2.5 times longer than CFLs, and 25 times longer than incandescents.”

. February 1, 2010 at 10:50 am

New energy rules may end ‘on-all-night’ shop displays

The era of the ‘on-all-night’ illuminated high street could end, the Environment Agency is predicting.

The agency says new rules will force businesses to switch off lights and displays at night to meet new limits.

The Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) scheme requires businesses to cut consumption or face stiff fines.

Meanwhile Energy Secretary Ed Miliband has warned that recent rows over scientific data must not damage efforts to control climate change.

From April, all businesses and public sector organisations that use more than a certain amount of energy must register for the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme and, from next year, pay for the carbon they emit.

. March 14, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Technology Quarterly

Quantum dots
A quantum leap for lighting
Consumer electronics: Tiny semiconductor crystals, called quantum dots, enable new forms of energy-efficient lighting

Mar 4th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

“Quantum dots are tiny crystals of semiconducting material just a few tens of atoms, or a few nanometres (billionths of a metre), across. They are typically made using some combination of zinc, cadmium, selenium and sulphur atoms. Their origins go back to work published in 1983 by Louis Brus, then at Bell Labs, in New Jersey, though it was several years before another physicist, Mark Reed at Yale University, described these tiny semiconductor clumps as “quantum dots”. When excited by light or electricity, a quantum dot emits light of a colour determined by the dot’s size and the material from which it is made. Light of a particular colour can therefore be produced by exciting dots of a specific size.

This approach has two advantages over using a YAG phosphor: with the right combination of quantum dots, the resulting light can be tuned to be much warmer; and quantum dots convert blue light to white light with an efficiency approaching 100%, so less energy is needed to produce a given amount of white light. The bulb (shown above) will go on sale this year. It will offer the performance of a 70-watt incandescent bulb but will draw only 11 watts. (A comparable CFL bulb would draw around 15 watts.)”

. March 17, 2010 at 11:08 am

Toshiba Ends Incandescent Bulb Production After 120 Years

“Toshiba has stopped production of mass-market incandescent light bulbs, putting an end to a 120-year manufacturing history of the products. The company, which is one of Japan’s largest makers of lighting products, had planned to halt production next year but brought up the date by a year. It will now focus on more energy efficient products, including LED (light-emitting diode) lights, which contain a handful of white LEDs and draw a fraction of the power of incandescent bulbs.”

. September 29, 2010 at 10:36 am

Selling Incandescent Light Bulbs As Heating Devices

“The European Union has banned by law trading of incandescent light bulbs due to their bad efficiency/ecology (most of the energy is transformed into heat). A company is now trying to bypass this restriction by offering their incandescent light bulb products as a heating device (article in German) instead of a light device. Still, their ‘heat balls’ give light as well as heating. So — every law can be bypassed if you have some creativity!”

. May 19, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Government delays pulling plug on old-fashioned light bulbs
Tories propose pushing deadline to 2014 over lack of alternatives to incandescents
Elizabeth Thompson,

The Conservative government wants to postpone pulling the plug on incandescent light bulbs, saying it needs more time to allow for technological innovations and to deal with concerns about compact fluorescent lamps.

In a notice of a proposed regulatory change, quietly given in the middle of the election campaign on April 16, the Natural Resources department proposed pushing back the deadline for phasing out incandescent bulbs by two years.

Instead of getting rid of 100-watt and 75-watt incandescent bulbs by Jan. 1, 2012, the deadline would be Jan. 1, 2014.

The Dec. 31, 2012, deadline for 60-watt and 40-watt light bulbs would be pushed back to Dec. 31, 2014.

. August 11, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Kill The Myth: Incandescent Bulbs Are Not Banned
BY Michael J. CorenTue Aug 9, 2011

Don’t like the government telling you to buy a CFL? There’s no need to take up arms. There’s still an incandescent bulb for you. It’s just a little more efficient.

Once the law begins to take effect next year, wattages for 100 watt bulbs are required to drop by about 30%. That means a former 100 watt bulb will use only 72 watts, yet emit a comparable amount of light. The law will be phased in over the next several years affecting 75 watt bulbs in 2013, then 60 watt and 40 watt bulbs in 2014. The new incandescent bulbs employ a small halogen capsule with an incandescent element that looks and operates just like a conventional bulb, while producing the same quality of light and using less energy. These halogen incandescents already meet or exceed the standards set by the EISA. To say it another way, incandescent bulbs are not banned. In fact, you may even have been buying EISA-compliant incandescents since 2009 when they first hit store shelves.

Peter G September 26, 2011 at 11:10 pm

The toxicity of mercury fluorescent light bulbs greatly outweighs any tiny benefits in comparison. A lady recently called the EPA and was referred to a waste specialist, a bill for $2000 in turn follows!

. December 27, 2013 at 12:15 am

Three-fifths of America doesn’t know incandescents are about to disappear

In less than a week, on Jan. 1, the most popular incandescent light bulbs — 40W and 60W bulbs — will no longer be made or imported into the U.S. That means, if you’ve got any old bulbs stashed away somewhere, those are all you’re getting, unless you run out right now and buy more. And three-fifths of Americans, according to Osram Sylvania’s “Socket Survey,” have no idea.

. January 14, 2014 at 9:29 pm

Congress to bar enforcement of light-bulb phaseout

Congress’ budget deal tries to thwart the federal phaseout of inefficient light bulbs and to expand financing of coal-fired power plants abroad.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill, which covers all federal agencies and is expected to pass the House and Senate this week, bars the Department of Energy from spending money to enforce federal rules that set tougher efficiency standards for light bulbs. Such a measure has been attached to prior budget deals as well.

The ban takes aim at a bipartisan 2007 law, signed by President Bush, that phases out the most commonly used Thomas Edison incandescents, which waste 90% of their energy as heat rather than light.

. August 25, 2017 at 9:20 pm

Pigou was open to different ways of tackling externalities. Some things should be regulated—he scoffed at the idea that the invisible hand could guide property speculators towards creating a well-planned town. Other activities ought simply to be banned. No amount of “deceptive activity”—adulterating food, for example—could generate economic benefits, he reckoned.

But he saw the most obvious forms of intervention as “bounties and taxes”. These measures would use prices to restore market perfection and avoid strangling people with red tape. Seeing that producers and sellers of “intoxicants” did not have to pay for the prisons and policemen associated with the rowdiness they caused, for example, he recommended a tax on booze. Pricier kegs should deter some drinkers; the others will pay towards the social costs they inflict.

This type of intervention is now known as a Pigouvian tax. The idea is not just ubiquitous in economics courses; it is also a favourite of policymakers. The world is littered with apparently externality-busting taxes. The French government imposes a noise tax on aircraft at its nine busiest airports. Levies on drivers to counterbalance the externalities of congestion and pollution are common in the Western world. Taxes to fix internalities, like those on tobacco, are pervasive, too. Britain will join other governments in imposing a levy on unhealthy sugary drinks starting next year.

Pigouvian taxes are also a big part of the policy debate over global warming. Finland and Denmark have had a carbon tax since the early 1990s; British Columbia, a Canadian province, since 2008; and Chile and Mexico since 2014. By using prices as signals, a tax should encourage people and companies to lower their carbon emissions more efficiently than a regulator could by diktat. If everyone faces the same tax, those who find it easiest to lower their emissions ought to lower them the most.

Such measures do change behaviour. A tax on plastic bags in Ireland, for example, cut their use by over 90% (with some unfortunate side-effects of its own, as thefts of baskets and trolleys rose). Three years after a charge was introduced on driving in central London, congestion inside the zone had fallen by a quarter. British Columbia’s carbon tax reduced fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions by an estimated 5-15%. And experience with tobacco taxes suggests that they discourage smoking, as long as they are high and smuggled substitutes are hard to find.

Champions of Pigouvian taxes say that they generate a “double dividend”. As well as creating social benefits by pricing in harm, they raise revenues that can be used to lower taxes elsewhere. The Finnish carbon tax was part of a move away from taxes on labour, for example; if taxes must discourage something, better that it be pollution than work. In Denmark the tax partly funds pension contributions.

. September 11, 2017 at 9:23 am

China to ban production of petrol and diesel cars ‘in the near future’

Announcement aimed at tackling pollution will prove a huge incentive to development and sale of electric and hybrid vehicles

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