A Dim Light on Global Warming

COPENHAGEN – Amid a growing wave of concern about climate change, many countries – including Brazil, Australia, the United States, and the members of the European Union – passed laws in the 2000’s outlawing or severely restricting access to incandescent light bulbs. The intention was understandable: if everyone in the world exchanged most light bulbs for energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), we could save 3.5% of all electricity, or 1% of our CO2 emissions.

The current attempt by Republicans in the US Congress to roll back America’s effort to ban incandescent bulbs has revived this discussion. Many contend that the agenda is being driven by knuckle-dragging climate-change deniers. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the premise that banning things is the smartest way to tackle global warming.

Let’s be clear: we do need to tackle climate change. But this does not mean that we should just cut all emissions. Burning fossil fuels also has significant benefits, and we should weigh those benefits against the costs.

A tax on carbon should be equivalent to its damage. The best estimate of this is about $7/ton of CO2 or $0.06/gallon of gasoline (€0.015/liter). Most developed countries already have a tax of this size (and often much larger) on electricity and fossil fuels, although this also incorporates the costs of air pollution and supply insecurity.