Artificial lighting is so ubiquitous in modern life that we hardly notice it or think about it anymore. In fact, even the term “artificial lighting” probably gives people pause. Most of us in the developed world spend so much time under artificial lighting that we’ve come to see it, rather than the sun, as our primary light source.
Vol. 7 No. 43
July 12, 2006
by David Suzuki
But that ubiquity has created an enormous problem. Lighting takes energy – usually in the form of electricity – and that energy has a huge cost to our environment and economy. A recent report from the International Energy
Agency (IEA), Light’s Labours Lost, details the toll lighting takes, but also points the way forward with solutions that could greatly reduce the footprint that lighting has on the planet.
In the past 200 years, the average person’s use of artificial light in the developed world has increased by a factor of 12,000. Artificial lighting has also increased in the developing world, but the difference between the
two is huge. North Americans use 30 times more artificial lighting per person, on average, than do people in India. We also use more than twice the average of Europeans.
Today, global demand for lighting costs about $360 billion (U.S.) per year and creates 1,900 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – largely from burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to generate electricity. That’s equal to about 70 per cent of the emissions from all the world’s automobiles. Over the next 25 years, global demand is expected to grow by another 80 per cent if current trends stay the same.
But here’s where the solutions come in. According to the report, those trends are totally unnecessary. We have the technologies today to vastly reduce the amount of energy we use for lighting; we have just barely begun
to make use of them. The typical incandescent light bulb found in the vast majority of light sockets in North America, for example, is not much different than those developed 125 years ago by Thomas Edison. In fact, only five per cent of the electricity these bulbs use creates light, the rest is wasted as heat.
According to the report, a market shift from incandescent bulbs to more modern compact fluorescent bulbs would, in itself, reduce world electricity demand by 18 per cent. And that’s just the beginning. Other technologies
are now becoming available on a commercial scale, including light emitting diodes, or LEDs, which have been making inroads in Christmas lights and flashlights. These super-bright lights use a fraction of the energy of
incandescent bulbs and their costs are starting to come down.
To reduce lighting costs on an even bigger scale, we have to look beyond just changing a bulb in a socket and examine how buildings are designed and how lighting is set up in our homes and offices. Right now, most buildings
fail to take advantage of natural sunlight and instead force their occupants to work under artificial lighting. Most offices are also over lit and many stay lit 24-hours a day, regardless of whether or not they are occupied.
Given the high economic and environmental cost of poor artificial lighting, why hasn’t something already been done about an obvious problem that has only worsened over the past two decades? According to the report, the
answer lies in market barriers. Until recently, energy prices have been artificially low. But even with today’s rising prices, lack of knowledge about lighting alternatives and higher initial cost outlays often prevent people from switching to more efficient lighting systems.
If we want to get serious about saving money and reducing the pollution caused by wasteful lighting, government has a key role to play. The IEA recommends a series of policy measures, from mandatory energy-performance
requirements for all lighting systems, to better product labeling, innovative financing systems, and improved building codes that include lighting performance. Just a few bright ideas from an internationally respected agency, and
should be mandatory reading for our leaders in Ottawa and the provincial capitals.