3E Intelligence

I am a bit surprised today to see WWF taking the side of globalisation champion Peter Mandelson, as the European Commission decided to retain its duties on energy-efficient light bulbs imported from China for one more year. The Commission decided to give in to its Vice-President, Günther Verheugen, who had been defending the anti-dumping duties to protect German business interests (Osram). Peter Mandelson and WWF wanted to abolish the duties. See the Commission’s press release.

WWF’s press release reads as follows (extract only):

WWF, the global conservation organisation, considers this proposal disappointing, unfair and seriously inconsistent with the ambitious EU targets to improve energy efficiency in Europe and to curb climate change.

“This is narrowly protectionist and sends a regressive message to developing country producers that they will be excluded from markets for cleaner products created by the higher environmental standards expected by European consumers”, says Eivind Hoff, WWF Trade and Investment Advisor. “This case shows a severe contradiction in EU policies: on the one hand, Europe has committed to an ambitious energy efficiency objective and on the other hand it continues to impose taxes on imports of green products such as the energy-efficient light bulbs from China”.

With a rapid switch to more efficient lamps, 23 million tonnes of CO2 could be saved per year, equivalent to 0.5% of EU greenhouse gas emissions.”

I certainly do not agree with the short-term nationalistic motivation of Verheugen in this dossier but there are some arguments based on sustainability criteria which WWF seems to be (partially) overlooking.

First, what are the environmental costs (not only the explicit ones, but also the hidden costs) of importing these light bulbs from China? The Chinese light bulbs are only so much cheaper because the transport costs for this kind of trade are way too low. WWF seems to have foreseen this question in its press release as they write: “Production and transport account for less than one per cent of the total global warming impact through the life cycle of a CFL-i used in Europe, regardless of whether it is produced in China or in Europe“. Where does WWF get this information from? I hope not from the Osram lobbying papers.

Secondly, as WWF admits itself, Chinese CFL-i lamps have a shorter life span and carry more mercury than European-made ones. I agree with the green organisation that this should be solved by using more stringent minimul requirements, but as these do not yet exist, what about disencouraging their coming on our markets for now?

Last but not least, China remains unwilling to start reducing its carbon emissions pointing to the US’ bad example and the “historical responsibility” of the West. Some greens have rightly so defended trade-related sanctions for big emitters who are unwilling to do their bit to protect our climate. Why should China be left off the hook?

The light bulb debate seems to have become one of those political symbol dossiers which politicians are able to sell to the public as proof of their good intentions to “tackle the problem” without having to understand all the complexities of the issue (a bit like the “roaming dossier”  in telecommunications policy should prove that the EU is good for consumers).

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  1. Thanks for your critical reading Willy!

    To reply to the first question, the working documents used under the EU Energy-using Products (EuP) directive say that emissions due to production, distribution and disposal of CFLs are in the range of 1-2 per cent of the total global warming impact through life cycle of these products (one per cent for transport). The rest is due to consumption. So saving 80% of emissions during consumption will clearly outweigh possible savings during transport. By the way… aren’t ordinary incandescent bulbs (which are not subject to anti-dumping duties) transported from China too?

    As to your second point, mercury is highly toxic and WWF has advocated stringent reductions globally. The EU regulation on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) imposes a limit of 0.5 milligram mercury. CFLs from China generally contain 0.3-0.4 milligram and the best ones (but not all) produced in Europe contain 0.2. It goes without saying that the ceiling set out in the regulation must be strictly enforced and the limits should be lowered over the next years (and probably should have been 0.2 from the start!). But this is not a matter of anti-dumping duties. Furthermore mercury spreads globally and by opening its market to EU-compliant light bulbs, Europe can contribute to reduce mercury use in Chinese CFL factories – which supply most of world demand for CFLs.

    Finally, you seem to make the case for keeping the duties as long as China does not take on binding emission commitments for greenhouse gases. But if the EU is to apply anti-dumping duties as sanction for countries not committing to fight climate change, then why not blocking all products coming from the US? China has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, after all. Instead, WWF believes that it is essential to create a cooperative atmosphere for the post-2012 negotiations. It is by reaching out to China and other emerging economies and by showing that the EU applies all its policies consistently that a meaningful international agreement for cutting greenhouse gas emissions is most likely to be achieved.

    WWF supports Commissioner Mandelson idea of zero tariffs for “green products”. So why not start immediately? Climate cannot wait for the perfect product.

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