The Austra-Mexican Lightbulb Solution to Global Warming

cflmexicoaustraliaAn Australian company is giving away 30 million compact fluorescent light bulbs to Mexican households in hopes of reaping big rewards in the international carbon credit markets.

Cool nrg, an environmental consulting firm with an anti-poverty focus, is using a framework set up by the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, called the Clean Development Mechanism, to generate carbon credits from the Mexican light bulb handout. The credits can then be sold on carbon trading markets for a profit.

One carbon credit represents a ton of carbon emissions; when the households in Mexico replace old incandescent bulbs with the CFLs, the energy, and thus emissions, saved can be converted into carbon credits on the balance sheet of the entity providing the bulbs. Already, one million bulbs have been given out in the state of Puebla under the program, which is called Cuidemos Mexico, or “Let’s Take Care of Mexico.”

Ultimately, Cuidemos Mexico hopes to generate about 7.5 million carbon credits, according to the New York Times. If successful, the program could become a model for how to foster clean development and energy efficiency in the poorest countries, while making money under an international greenhouse gas reduction program.

Fraud Concerns

There are some stumbling blocks along the way, however.

To prevent fraud, Cool nrg has instituted various safeguards: each family receives four CFLs under the program, but must hand over four incandescent bulbs in exchange, and also provide an electrical bill as proof of residence. Those details are databased to prevent stockpiling and profiteering. And to help measure actual usage, a sample of the bulbs will be monitored wirelessly.

Whether these precautions are enough to keep the program running smoothly is another question. A CFL is worth a meaningful amount of money to a poor person, who might decide they’re better off selling the bulb than waiting for electricity savings to accrue over time.

Addressing Critics of the CDM

But Cool nrg’s program does address one of the main criticisms of the Clean Development Mechanism, which was set up to transfer knowledge and funding for clean development from rich countries to poor ones: that it is skewed towards rapidly industrializing developing nations, like China.

For an entity hoping to reap carbon credits from the CDM, it is much simpler to reduce emissions at one or two large coal plants, for example, than to try and get thousands or millions of individuals to use less electricity. Cool nrg’s program hopes to change that mindset.

Also, Cool nrg has gained “programmatic” status for its light bulb program, meaning it can be set up in other countries without having to go through onerous U.N. approval each time.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.