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Hey Elizabeth Warren, lightbulbs do matter

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The switch to energy-efficient lighting like LEDs has helped the U.S. reduce emissions

A high-tech, energy-efficient LED light bulb is seen on a display at CES, the consumer electronics show, with a man browsing the booth in the background.
More efficient light bulbs have dramatically lowered household energy demand.
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

“This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at this week’s seven-hour climate town hall when asked if she’d require Americans to use energy-efficient lightbulbs. “They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers.”

Warren’s sentiments were widely shared by publications that commended her for smacking down the “dumbest climate argument.”

I tweeted Warren’s quote, too. But then I looked up how much energy-efficient lightbulbs could actually reduce carbon pollution. And it turns out—it’s a lot.

Lightbulbs are actually one of the U.S.’s great emissions-lowering success stories. And they’re a source of inspiration for other industries that can use lightbulbs as a model for changing consumer behavior and reducing overall energy demand.

That’s not exactly what CNN moderator Chris Cuomo asked Warren about lightbulbs, which was this:

So a quick question about going from the worker to the consumer. Today the president announced plans to roll back energy-saving lightbulbs, and he wants to reintroduce four different kinds, which I’m not going to burden you with, but one of them is the candle-shaped ones, and those are a favorite for a lot of people, by the way. But do you think that the government should be in the business of telling you what kind of lightbulb you can have?

But it was a timely question, if poorly phrased. The Trump administration had just announced the roll back of regulations which would have required all lightbulbs to meet certain efficiency standards by the beginning of 2020. The standards, which were put into place under President George W. Bush in 2007, can’t be met by incandescent lightbulbs—but they can by compact fluorescents and LEDs, which started to enter the consumer market a decade ago.

Some Americans might have waffled on making the switch at first, perhaps due to light quality. (I do recall the early compact fluorescents taking some time to power up and then having a bit of a blue tinge.) But the bulbs got better and better. People ended up embracing LEDs—which are not bulbs in the traditional sense, but an array of light-emitting diodes—mostly because they last a lot longer. You get 1,000 hours of illumination for an incandescent compared to up to 25,000 hours per LED—meaning you don’t have to buy as many of them.

But what’s really remarkable is that it only took about six years for the entire industry to be reshaped.

The decrease in the use of incandescents very closely mirrors an overall decrease in American household energy consumption. Lightbulbs didn’t do it alone, of course, but they definitely contributed to the drop in demand for electricity. Which is why utilities from 47 states—many of which give their customers free energy-efficient lightbulbs to help decrease demand—have come out against the Department of Energy on the ruling. There’s a reason cities everywhere are installing LED streetlights: They’re saving a tremendous amount of money.

The rule that would have increased lightbulb efficiency even more beginning in 2020—which the Trump administration has confirmed it is eliminating—would have expanded the regulations to also include recessed can and track lighting, decorative bulbs in chandeliers and sconces, three-way bulbs, and globe bulbs.

Just keeping those incandescent bulbs lit will require energy from an additional 25 power plants every year, according to a detailed analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The story of lightbulbs in the U.S. is important, says Charles Komanoff, an expert in energy and transportation policy who wrote more on the topic for the Carbon Tax Center, because it shows that reducing emissions doesn’t have to require sacrifice. “LEDs are superior to incandescents along every criterion, most critically in producing the same or better lighting with more than an 80 percent saving in electricity,” he says, praising lightbulbs as part of a “40-year collaboration of engineers, environmentalists, and regulators that painlessly delivered efficiency to the entire U.S. appliance sector.”

What the country did with lightbulbs is what we must do for electric vehicle adoption. Electric cars are like LEDs in this scenario—many magnitudes more efficient, and technologically superior in every way. If you provide reasonable government regulation, offer subsidies to make those initial options more affordable, and guarantee consumers that they won’t have to spend as much once they make the switch, people will gladly change their behavior. The science, efficiency, and quality will all get better, while costs will go down. And when paired with other innovations—like new smart lights that can be programmed to power down when not in use, buildings that are designed to allow more natural light to enter rooms, or lights that are charged using solar panels—you eventually might not need as many lightbulbs at all. (In the same way more walking and biking and transit can eliminate the need for more electric cars.)

I still think that Cuomo’s question was bad. All the CNN moderators seemed to be fixated on that idea of sacrifice; what the government will “force” people to do, or that regulation is somehow bad. Warren was right to shut down that line of questioning. (And she was 100 percent right about the straws, which have absolutely nothing to do with emissions.)

But if you want to look at an example of one small thing anyone can do that actually has reduced emissions in the U.S., sometimes it is as simple as changing a lightbulb.