As you may have noticed, Earth is a pretty complex place. As we rush to reverse the effects of decades pumping carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere, it is possible that we might inadvertently do more harm than good. It isn’t as simple as less carbon = good, and people working to combat climate change would do well to remember that we still don’t fully understand the systems that govern our planet.
We’ve already seen that biofuels, once heralded as the solution to all energy problems, can actually lead to food shortages – we were so wrapped up in making the change, we didn’t consider the consequences.
Now, research published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal has shown that energy saving compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) might not be such a bright idea. The UK government has pledged to irradicate traditional bulbs by 2011, but scientists at Yale University suggest this could be the wrong approach.
The problem is that the strangely-shaped bulbs contain small amounts of mercury – on average, 4 micrograms. Whilst mercury poisoning gave us the Mad Hatter, there is no risk to homeowners from the low levels in the bulbs. The problem occurs when the bulbs reach the end of their life and are thrown away, releasing the mercury into the atmosphere.
The research found that for places relying on coal power for electricity generation, the switch to energy savers can cut mercury emissions significantly. In the US, per capita annual emissions of mercury from coal power plants amount to 163mg, so using the new bulbs not only reduces the electricity used, but also the mercury emitted.
Paradoxically, countries that have already “gone green” could actually cause more damage by adopting CFLs. Cleaner-powered countries like Norway (who in 2004 generated 99% of their electricity using hydroelectric power) already have a low “mercury footprint”, and whilst CFLs would save energy, they would increase mercury usage significantly. “The places known for sustainability are the places that have the potential to do the most harm by bringing this technology in,” said Julie Zimmerman, an environmental engineer at Yale and a co-author of the study.
It just goes to show that there is not a “one size fits all” solution to the climate change problem. More studies like this one would help governments make decisions about the direction they should take with regards to energy, but most importantly governments must actually listen to what the scientists are telling them. Science is often counter-intuitive, and sweeping, unresearched changes could leave us worse off then when we started.