Green lights are the new white

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It’s not just our light bulbs we need to change, says Laura Sevier. We need to rethink the way we light

Big changes are happening in the lighting world. In December last year, Theo van Deurson, CEO of Philips, the world’s biggest lighting manufacturer, said: ‘We believe it is time to encourage the switch to energy-saving light bulbs.’

This year, on 9 March, EU leaders announced their intention to ban incandescent light bulbs by 2010. Then on 12 March, Gordon Brown said that the UK would be the first country in Europe to phase out high-energy light bulbs from ‘almost all’ domestic use by 2011.


At present, the electricity used to light the UK’s homes produces carbon dioxide emissions of around 7.8 million tonnes a year. ‘Banning incandescent light bulbs could save the UK two to three millions of tonnes of CO2 per year,’ says Dr Matt Prescott, who started the Ban the Bulb campaign two years ago ( ‘It’s a symbolic and significant start. At present, energy-saving CFLs [compact fluorescent lamps] account for only seven per cent of the UK market. This is now set to change.’

With the Draft Climate Change Bill outlining targets for a 60 per cent reduction in CO2 by 2050, change is clearly necessary. Yet we’re lighting our homes more than ever before. The average UK household has around 23 light bulbs, accounting for approximately 16 per cent of total domestic electricity. Electricity consumption by domestic lights and appliances has nearly doubled since 1970 and is set to increase by 12 per cent by 2010, according to Defra.

So who or what is to blame for this increase? It’s not just the ordinary tungsten lightbulb with its warm but wasteful glow. It’s also our habit of lighting whole rooms instead of just the areas we need, largely driven by a craze for halogen downlighters. ‘Interior designers have been enthralled by them for 25 years,’ says lighting designer John Bullock. ‘They’re meant to be spotlights, for accent lighting. But now they’re everywhere, giving off all this visual white noise. Before the Seventies we never had enough light – everything was under-lit. Now we have too much light and we’re very careless with the way we use it.’

Unnecessary and excessive use of artificial lighting is not only a waste of energy and money. It can also be obtrusive, irritating and a health hazard. Studies have shown how ‘overillumination’ can lead to headaches, fatigue, stress, and hypertension. Artificial light is even considered a ‘pollutant’. So what can we do?

Enjoy natural light

The sun is our most abundant and ecofriendly light source. As well as being a mood enhancer, it compares with the best fluorescents – and it’s free. The more you can allow in, the less you need to rely on artificial lighting. The best natural light comes from the north, according to Ian Armstrong, architect and founder of sustainable architectural practice Arco2, in Cornwall. ‘With north light there’s constant brightness, even if it’s a grey day,’ he says. ‘West-facing windows are good for evening sun. South light is brighter but you get more glare.’

To create a light, airy indoors

• Use pale colours for walls, ceilings and floors wherever possible
• Hang mirrors opposite windows
• Clean your windows, de-clutter right back during the day.

Think before you light

Decide how much and what type of lighting you need:
• General or ambient: provides overall space brightness
• Task: lighting for reading, writing, etc
• Accent: for table tops and counters or to highlight features
• Mood: coloured lights, candles, etc.

Choosing a bulb

• For general or task lighting, go for energy-saving CFLs. These now come in hundreds of shapes, sizes, colours and tones. Gone are the days of ugly fluorescent tubes that protruded beyond their lampshades.
• For a warm, yellowish light, choose a lamp with a low colour temperature (measured in degrees Kelvin) – less than 3500K. For a cooler, whiter light, go for a high colour temperature (3500K+ for cool and 5000K+ for cold).
• For accent or task lighting, try a good quality warm white LED. LEDs give off light in one direction so are natural spotlights. Colour-changing LEDs make good mood lights.

Lighten up…

Eithne Farry has these bright ideas for transforming an old lampshade:
• Get painting. If it’s a plain shade, add stripes or spots or squiggles or use a potato print for a repeat pattern.
• If it’s a thick cardboard shade, make a pattern of constellations by piercing holes in the card with an upholstery needle or a compass.
• Draw tree branches, leaves and cherries onto the shade then cut out some of the shapes so that it’s like a stencil but with light as the paint.

Need a new lamp?

There are plenty to choose from – including a new wave of eco designs.

Go retro

Find a vintage lamp on Ebay or buy from a secondhand shop (check that it will work with an energy-efficient bulb).

Eco lamps and shades

• Oliver Heath’s ‘Natural Wonders’ range combines colour-changing LEDs with low-energy bulbs so you can switch from task to mood lighting; Jasper Startup’s ‘Miss Light’ shades are made from sustainable plywood; designer Nahoko Koyama makes ‘Coron’ shades from old felt hats. All available at
• Luminair LED lighting is made in the UK from sustainable materials.
• 100 per cent recycled cardboard lampshades, handmade by Use UK, are available at
• Design collective Neues Licht fibreoptic lights work with low-energy lamps.

Glow in the dark

• Solar-powered garden lights require no wiring or power source. Just stake them in the ground to mark steps and paths or to use as security lights. British Eco,
• Glow bricks and wind-up torches are available at
• Try Natural Magic candles, made using vegetable wax and essential oils – visit

Bulbs glossary

Traditional bulbs

Most ‘standard’ light bulbs are incandescent lamps that use a very inefficient method of producing light. Only five per cent of the energy used is converted into light, the rest being turned into heat.

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)

Commonly called energy-saving bulbs, CFLs consume one-fifth of the power and last up to 12 times longer than incandescents – up to 12,000 hours. Replacing just one incandescent with a CFL can cut your lighting costs by up to £100 over the bulb’s lifetime. Most CFLs can’t be used with a dimmer switch, but there are a few dimmable models ( CFLs contain mercury, so need to be disposed of at a CFL recycling facility. Some retailers, such as IKEA, will recycle them for you. For more information:

Tungsten halogen bulbs

Similar to incandescents but much smaller. One of the least efficient of all light sources (most function at 50W), their bright white light makes them popular as ceiling spotlights. Philips and Osram have energysaving 35W versions.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)

‘Low-energy LED lights are the future of lighting,’ says designer Oliver Heath. ‘They have four times the lifespan of energy-saving bulbs, use as little as one to four watts – and they can change colour.’ First developed for use in digital clocks and dashboards, their technology has advanced in recent years but as yet, their light output is not bright enough for general lighting so they are best used as accent or mood lights.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2007

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