Beginning Saturday, it will be illegal to import or produce traditional incandescent light bulbs in EU member states. The move has upset consumers and many environmentalists, but it serves to highlight the EU’s democratic deficiencies.
From the front, the item the defendants dragged into the courtroom looked like an ordinary mobile heater: a vertical, slightly ribbed metal plate with a power cable. Only when seen from the back did the device reveal itself to be a battery of interconnected 100-watt light bulbs. Packed closely together, the bulbs heat the metal plate, which in turn radiates heat into a room.
This was the way the “Electric Resistance Society” was trying to circumvent European Union bans and bring traditional incandescent light bulbs back to Europe. It argued that there could be no legal objection to selling them as miniature heating units for homes.
But the judges at the administrative court in the western German city of Aachen were not impressed by Siegfried Rotthäuser and Rudolf Hannot’s attempt to outsmart the system. The judges prohibited the sale of 40,000 “Heatballs” seized by customs authorities that the two engineers had had made in China. In fact, the “Heatballs” were nothing but ordinary tungsten light bulbs. And that makes them hot goods since the European Commission issued Regulation No. 244/2009. The regulation calls for a gradual ban on sales of all traditional incandescent light bulbs. The first to go were 100-watt bulbs, on Sept. 1, 2009, and it will cover all remaining bulbs as of Sept. 1, 2012.
The reason is that incandescent light bulbs waste 95 percent of the energy they consume. If the EU’s climate objectives are to be met, the reasoning goes, Europeans can no longer afford to use such energy-gobbling devices. As a result, the classic — and popular — light bulbs have been gradually disappearing from store shelves in the EU.
Now that 100-, 75- and 60-watt bulbs have already been eliminated, as of Sept. 1 the smaller 25- and 40-watt bulbs will also slowly disappear from the lives of 500 million Europeans — without any of those citizens having ever been asked about the ban. Nowhere is the bureaucratic influence of European government agencies as powerful as in the delirium of energy efficiency.
“The EU has made a decision without consulting citizens and, in doing so, it has massively intervened in our quality of life,” says Hannot, the light-bulb activist. This paternalism and lack of transparency almost aggravates him more than doing without the stronger, warmer light of incandescent light bulbs. The makers of the documentary film “Bulb Fiction” even speculate that the European light-bulb lobby, including major companies like Philips and Osram, are behind the demise of the cheaper incandescent light bulb given the much larger profit margins associated with more expensive energy-saving light bulbs.
But there is also someone else behind the phase-out of incandescent bulbs: Sigmar Gabriel, the current chairman of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s largest opposition party.
The 53-year-old — who is undoubtedly a shining light for the Social Democrats today — wanted to make a name for himself in 2007, when he was the federal environment minister. At the time, Germany was ruled by a grand coalition made up of the SPD, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and Germany had just assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council presidency in Brussels. Gabriel was seeking the international spotlight.
In February, after Australia announced a ban on incandescent light bulbs, Gabriel wrote to the EU environment commissioner, saying: “Europe can no longer afford products with a degree of efficiency of only 5 percent, such as conventional light bulbs.”