Nonsense on lightbulbs and nonsense on water

Two bits of credibility-damaging silliness from the environmental movement that I have to point out as a matter of conscience.

First, Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute asserts:

On February 20, 2007, Australia announced it would phase out the sale of inefficient incandescent light bulbs by 2010, replacing them with highly efficient compact fluorescent bulbs that use one fourth as much electricity. If the rest of the world joins Australia in this simple step to sharply cut carbon emissions, the worldwide drop in electricity use would permit the closing of more than 270 coal-fired (500 megawatt) power plants. For the United States, this bulb switch would facilitate shutting down 80 coal-fired plants.

What offends is how categorical this statement is. “The worldwide drop in energy use would permit the closing of…“, followed by a number that is plainly not the result of intense research examining how lightbulb use is distributed worldwide vis-à-vis electricity sources, peak demands and capacities, and so forth (no such figures arise later in the long piece, either — this is the last we hear of this number).

What we’re really saying is that a global switch from incandescents to fluorescents would save 135,000 megawatts of electricity, although whether that’s based on a guesstimate of how much power would theoretically be consumed by all the incandescents suspected of being abroad in the world if they were all switched on, or how much is thought to be consumed at any given moment, or what, is never made clear.

So the 270-coal-plant number is an attention-grabber, but it’s hollow. It’s hard to take seriously anything that comes after it in what’s otherwise a coherent argument in favour of conservation generally and compact fluorescent lightbulbs in particular.

Well, almost:

Shifting to the highly efficient bulbs sharply reduces monthly electricity bills and cuts carbon emissions, since each standard (13 watt) compact fluorescent over its lifetime reduces coal use by more than 210 pounds.

Assuming you get 100-per-cent of your power from coal. Sloppy again. A lot of the world uses nuclear power. A lot uses hydro. We can’t just pretend these power sources don’t exist.

This passage is meant to address concerns about the minuscule amount of mercury in a compact fluorescent bulb, arguing that the mercury in the coal burned to power an incandescent is a greater threat. OK, but what about places that don’t use coal at all? Quebec gets basically all its power from hydro — should Quebecers stick with incandescents?

Next, the Worldwatch Intitute strives mightily to connect rich First Worlders’ consumption of bottled water to cholera among Third Worlders:

“Bottled water may be an industry winner, but it’s an environmental loser,” says Ling Li, a fellow with the Institute’s China Program who authored the update. “The beverage industry benefits the most from our bottled water obsession. But this does nothing for the staggering number of the world’s poor who see safe drinking water as at best a luxury, and at worst, an unattainable goal.” An estimated 35–50 percent of urban dwellers in Africa and Asia lack adequate access to safe potable water, according to Worldwatch’s State of the World 2007 report.

Consumers in industrial countries choose to drink bottled water for taste and convenience, while in developing countries, unreliable and unsafe municipal water supplies have driven the growth in consumption. Yet many poorer people who seek improved drinking water supplies cannot afford the bottled version. Bottled water can be between 240 and 10,000 times more expensive than tap water; in 2005, sales in the United States alone generated more than $10 billion in revenue.

In places with drinkable tapwater, bottled water is a staggeringly wasteful luxury and nobody should drink the stuff unless under a doctor’s orders. Not enough places have drinkable tapwater. These two facts are not connected. We don’t have the Third World’s drinkable water in bottles in our fridges.

The idea seems to be that bottled-water-drinkers will stop drinking bottled water and donate the money to dig wells in Africa. Indeed they should. But odd leaps of logic won’t make it happen.

(The Lester Brown piece came via Environmental Economics.)


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