How many former merchant bankers does it take to change Australia’s light bulbs? One. Federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a plan to phase out Australia’s standard incandescent light bulbs by 2009.

The details were still sketchy this morning — “Basically over a period of time they will no longer be for sale”, Turnbull told Channel Nine — but we know that the compact fluorescent bulb, which costs $5 more than the old technology but apparently saves an average of $30 a year, will replace incandescent bulbs.

Is it a bright idea or should we turn the dimmer switch?

It’s a really good move, says Paul Gilding, CEO of Easy Being Green, because instead of focusing on politically-charged ideological debates like nuclear v wind power we “know we can do things now”. Like changing what’s lighting up our lives.  

But avoiding dangerous climate change will require “about 60 announcements of the this size”, says Tony Mohr from the Australian Conservation Foundation. And this initiative fails to address the “real biggy” — car travel — which accounts for 34% of household emissions compared with 5% for lighting.

A light bulb changeover will save around 800,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year by 2008-2002, according to Turnbull, and 4 million tonnes by 2015, but the annual stats show a flatulence-control program for bovines could be even more effective:

  • Australia’s total emissions per year: 564.7 million tonnes
  • Livestock emissions per year: 65.2 million tonnes 
  • Road transport emissions per year: 68.1 million tonnes
  • Passenger cars per year: 41.7 million tonnes
  • Road travel to/from work per year: 11.3 million tonnes
  • Domestic aviation per year: 4.8 million tonnes
  • Railways per year: 1.7 million tonnes

  • Household emissions per year: 51.8 million tonnes (Average Australian household emits 14 tonnes per year)

  • Prescribed burning of savannas per year: 11 million tonnes

Meanwhile, Turnbull has demonstrated environmental prowess, recycling an idea that Planet Ark founder Jon Dee had been working on with lighting company Phillips and Turnbull’s predecessor, Ian Campbell. They were set to announce a Ban the Bulb campaign, but Turnbull snuck in first.

Which recalls the old joke: How many environment ministers does it take to screw you over? One.

SOURCES: Greenhouse Gas Inventory, 2004; Wilkenfield