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SA is planning to become the first country in Africa to phase out and then ban all energy-guzzling light bulbs before 2016.

The decision to ban incandescent lights in the next five years was announced at the 17th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17) by Energy Minister Dipuo Peters yesterday.

Although the energy-saving effects have not been quantified, Peters estimated that switching from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) or light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs could save enough power to light more than four million homes.

The planned phasing-out is part of a partnership between the UN Environment Programme (Unep) and the Phillips and Osram lighting groups.

Achim Steiner, the head of Unep, said new technology could provide the same level of lighting using just one tenth of the power.

The International Energy Agency had estimated that electricity for lighting accounted for close to 20 percent of global electricity production, and about 6 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the figures are likely to be quite different for SA, where most electricity is used by heavy industry, and not for lighting homes and offices.

Nevertheless, Unep estimates that the electricity that would be saved through a global switchover from incandescent bulbs to energy-efficient CFL bulbs would be equivalent to all the electricity used in the UK and Denmark.

Peters was not present to answer questions when the announcement was made yesterday, but she said in a prepared statement that SA hoped to become the first African country to ban incandescent bulbs.

While the energy saving and greenhouse gas saving make the project attractive, there are question marks over a number of issues, including the higher price of the new-technology bulbs and the environmental implications of the toxic mercury component of CFL bulbs.

Peters was not present yesterday to explain whether SA might follow the example of Uruguay, which agreed to waive taxes on energy-efficient bulbs in an effort to reduce the price for consumers.

On the issue of mercury pollution, Unep noted that Uruguay was planning new regulations to limit the mercury content in CFL bulbs, as it was difficult to guarantee the effective recycling of these bulbs.

Another possible solution was to promoteLED lighting. Apart from being mercury-free, LED lamps also emitted a warmer light colour similar to incandescent lighting. - The Mercury