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Why LED lighting won’t save the planet

A few months ago I was complaining that the most visible result of the introduction of LED lighting to ‘save the planet’ seemed to be increased night-time illumination of the whole country, from forests in the Highlands to parks and gardens in towns and cities.

A LightAware supporter told me that this was a result of the Jevons Paradox. As I had never heard of it, looked it up in Wikipedia. In a nutshell it states that, in the long term, an increase in efficiency in resource use will generate an increase in resource consumption rather than a decrease.

IMAGE: London, United Kingdom” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

For LED lighting, this means that any reduction in electricity use due to the replacement of incandescent and halogen bulbs by LEDs will be more than outweighed by the increased use of LEDs in new situations. It is a classic example of the rebound effect, where efficiency gains from new technologies lead to increased resource use in the long-term.

Regrettably, this is proving to be the case. For example, according to ‘The Guardian’ “a gigantic glowing orb, as wide as the London Eye and almost as tall as Big Ben, is planned to descend on Stratford, like a great artificial sun, dazzling the East End with the power of 36 million LEDs” What are the carbon emissions from such a monstrosity?  What will be the impact on the health of local residents, including the wildlife?

There are also plans to install 1,000 London bus shelters with 84-inch digital screens. The Adfree cities network calculated that a double-sided shelter screen uses as much electricity as four average homes. In many cities giant LED screens are replacing old fashioned billboards. Even in the home there are issues, for example, in kitchen refurbishments dozens of LEDs are commonly installed to create task and area lighting. I’ve never understood why kitchens need to be so brightly lit. A couple of halogen lights work for me.  I recently went on holiday to a cottage where a small galley kitchen was lit by 10 LEDs.

A groundbreaking study of global light pollution and the rise of LED outdoor lighting technology published in Science Advances, found both light pollution and lighting energy consumption are increasing over much of the planet, challenging widely-held  assumptions that improvements in the energy efficiency of outdoor lighting lead to a decrease in energy consumption. More recent publications in Remote Sensing reveal an acceleration of light pollution, suggesting that the true increase in radiance in the visible spectrum may be globally as high as 270% and 400% in specific regions.  We really need strict planning laws to control unnecessary lighting and light pollution.

Curiously, the  rebound effect and paradox were first described by Jevons in his 1865 book ‘The Coal Question’. He observed that the invention of more efficient steam engines meant that the use of coal became economically viable for many new uses. This led to increased coal demand and much increased coal consumption even as the amount of coal required for any particular use fell. According to Jevons, “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. 

Paradoxically, the paradox that first described how more efficient use of coal would lead to increased coal use (and eventually to global warming) has now banjaxed our efforts to reduce carbon emissions from lighting.

How can Green Parties. the EU, and governments across the world persist in their deluded belief that the carbon savings from banning incandescent and halogen bulbs is equivalent to their1 for 1 replacement with LEDs?  Unfortunately, history and economics show that these naive hopes are bound to fail. To paraphrase Jevons, it is confused thinking to suppose that the increased energy efficiency of LEDs is equivalent to diminished energy consumption. The reverse is true.

Sadly, this leaves people who cannot tolerate LEDs with no alternative and in the dark.

Light upon Light upon Light
Creeps o’er our illumed world from dusk till dawn
Extinguishing fragile darkness
Murdering innocent sleep, the balm of aching souls
Leaving bleached minds agonised and perplexed
The star-spangled heavens eclipsed by cities glare
No dark side to our earth, we spiral towards extinction
by our own hand. The world a Catherine wheel
Lit by madmen, disfigured by dazzling highways
annihilating the fearful creatures of the night.

by John Lincoln (With apologies to Bill. S)

Blogs are written by LightAware supporters in a personal capacity

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