8 SDGs supported by a Fluorescent phase out

Phasing out mercury-based fluorescent lighting supports eight of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

Accelerating the transition to clean and efficient lighting through the Minamata Convention will achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. Mercury is a highly toxic chemical found in the environment. Once released, it cycles back and forth between the air and soil, all the while changing chemical forms. Commonly used in offices, homes and public spaces, a fluorescent bulb contains 3 to 30 mg of mercury, posing a threat to people and the planet.

Launched in 2013 with the goal to “Make Mercury History” by eliminating the use of mercury in products and processes worldwide, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which entered into force in 2017 following ratification by 50 countries still includes exemptions for mercury-based fluorescent lighting products citing insufficient cost-effective alternatives across global markets. Recent advancements in light-emitting diode (LED) technology have enabled LED lights to become a safe and cost-effective alternative to fluorescent lighting, rendering the exemption unnecessary.

Recognising the opportunity to transition lighting markets to LED lighting, capture the benefits of global equity and sustainable development, thirty-six African countries submitted a proposed Amendment to the Convention calling for the phase-out of mercury-containing fluorescent lighting by 2025. This proposal to accelerate the transition to LED lighting will improve the well-being of people and the planet by supporting objectives and achievement of eight Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

SDG 3: Good Health and Being

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Mercury exposure can affect the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. Exposure to mercury – even small amounts – can bring health risks especially to developing fetuses, infants and children. The biggest risk to our health is when a mercury-bulb breaks.  If the mercury is not immediately contained or cleaned up, it can become an invisible, odorless gas that people inhale, with 80% of inhaled mercury being absorbed by the body. Fluorescent lamp breakage is most common at the end of life where the majority of fluorescent bulbs are discarded into general waste streams. LED lamps represent a safer and clean alternative to fluorescent lamps that remove any risk of exposure to mercury, a highly toxic substance.  By phasing out fluorescent lighting, the Minamata Convention will contribute to the objectives of SDG 3 on Health, and in particular SDG 3.9 which seeks to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.

SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

Compared to today’s LED lighting, fluorescent lighting is an old technology that consumes twice as much energy to produce the same amount of light.  Thus, replacing fluorescent lights with LED alternatives is fully aligned with the objectives of SDG7 – and in particular, SDG 7.3 to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency. Because LEDs are more efficient and last longer than fluorescent lights, they lower energy bills for consumers and business, and can support increased energy access under SDG 7.1 on universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services.

The payback period associated with the LED replacement of fluorescent lights is in most cases less than a year making them a highly cost-effective alternative to toxic fluorescent lamps. In some countries, including the United States and South Africa, LEDs are approximately 50% less expensive to own and operate than a CFL. Even in Uganda, where only 60% of the urban population has access to electricity, a market analysis found that the life-cycle cost of owning and using a CFL is almost double that of using an equivalent LED bulb. At the international level, the Clean Lighting Coalition (CLiC) estimates that if the African Lighting Amendment is adopted, it would reduce global electricity use by approximately 3%.

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

The World Health Organization classifies mercury as one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern. Mercury exposure from fluorescents is possible at every stage of their life cycle, including manufacturing, transportation, installation, use and finally disposal. Workers involved in fluorescent light manufacturing and recycling can be exposed to emissions or spills from the treatment, dosing of lamps at the factory and from broken lamps and waste. A health study that looked at a fluorescent lamp recycling plant in Madison, Wisconsin, found that workers exhibited symptoms of mercury exposure. When installing, using and removing lamps, there is a risk of breakage and only a small fraction of the fluorescent lamps are recovered and recycled at the end of life. The vast majority are simply disposed of with the general waste where the mercury escapes from the broken lamp and is released to the environment.

Supporting the phase-out fluorescent lighting would reduce occupational exposure to mercury and help to achieve the objectives of SDG 8.8, which aims to protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment.

SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities 

Reduced Inequality within and among countries

In addition to being toxic, fluorescent lighting is an old, inefficient light source which is no longer competitive in today’s market. This has been recognized by wealthy nations and countries, for example the 27 members of the European Union, who are now taking steps to phase out fluorescent lamps. As that is happening suppliers of fluorescent lamps are looking for new markets to sell their products, raising concerns about equity.  As wealthy countries and developed economies lead the transition to LEDs, the rest of the world – developing countries and emerging markets –must not be treated as a dumping ground for outdated, mercury-laden fluorescents that are banned in most of the OECD region.

SDG 10.4 calls for countries to adopt policies, including social protection policies, that will progressively achieve greater equality, and SDG 10.5 calls for a framework to implement these policies.  Adopting the African Lighting Amendment to the Minamata Convention supports the achievement of these goals, as it would ban trade in fluorescent lights, prevent emerging economies from becoming a dumping ground for toxic, inefficient lighting.  Through the adoption of this Amendment, the Parties to the Convention will be sending a signal to the global lighting market that it is time to reduce technology and product inequalities, and promote access to safe, efficient, clean LED lighting for all, regardless sex, age, disability, race, class, ethnicity or religion.

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

The collection of mercury lamps at the end of life including waste separation and collection, transport, disposal, and mercury recovery remains a main concern around the world. Even in countries where there are systems in place for electrical and electronic waste management, recycling is still limited.  A 2016 report by the Danish Environment Protection Agency found that Denmark, which has one of the highest collection rates in the EU, had achieved an overall bulb collection rate of only 36%. In the United States, recycling rates have been reported at 29% for industry recycled fluorescent lamps and CFLs, and at only 2% for consumers. In Africa, e-waste that is collected and properly recycled (including lighting products) was at 4% in Southern Africa, 1.3% in Eastern Africa and close to 0% in other regions. 

Mercury leakage into the environment contaminates the air and water around the cities and settlements where we live. Replacing fluorescent lights with LEDs will eliminate the risks associated with managing hazardous wastes, and contribute to SDG 11.6; to reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.

SDG 12: Responsible Consumption & Production

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns 

The Minamata Convention requires Environmentally Sound Management (ESM) of products containing mercury directly contributing to the achievement of SDG 12. ESM is one of the multilateral frameworks supporting SDG 12.4; to achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, […] and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment. The UN Environment Programme established a Partnership Area under the Convention, as a means to support the development of such an EMS to minimise and eliminate unintentional mercury releases to the environment from waste containing mercury through a Life Cycle Management approach.

Through the phase-out of fluorescent lighting, developing countries will benefit from developing ESMs to deal with end-of-life management more effectively in order to reduce mercury releases. Moving forward, transitioning to LED lighting will eliminate the need for ESM of mercury-containing (fluorescent) lamps.

SDG 13: Climate Action

Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

LEDs offer an ideal mechanism – reduced mercury and CO2 emissions- to help achieve SDG 13 and combat climate change. CLASP estimates that if the African Lighting Amendment is adopted, the world would save up to 3.5 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions cumulatively between 2025 and 2050 mitigating the adverse impacts of fluorescent lighting on the climate. Phasing out fluorescent lights by 2025 would also result in removing 232 tonnes (cumulative 2025-2050) of mercury pollution in the environment from the bulbs themselves and from avoided burning of coal in power stations. Phasing out fluorescents, through the Convention would provide Parties with a global framework for eliminating mercury-laden lighting and contribute to SDG 13.2; to integrate climate change measures into national policies.


SDG 14: Life Below Water 

By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution

Along with other anthropogenic product and processes containing mercury, mercury-based lighting contributes to the contamination of global waters and ecosystems. Mercury released from incorrect disposal of fluorescent lamps and atmospheric releases from coal combustion for fluorescent lamps contribute to mercury deposits into water. Similarly, mercury-contaminated soils permeate into ground water, in turn polluting surface water. Once in the water, mercury can be transported long-distances and bacteria processes transform it into methylmercury – the most-toxic form of mercury to people. Methylmercury bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in the food chain, in particular in predatory fish, to the point where consumption advisories have been issued against eating shark, swordfish, bigeye tuna and king mackerel, especially by pregnant women. Arctic countries are particularly exposed to transboundary mercury pollution which presents a threat to the ecosystem and vulnerable indigenous communities, who rely on fish as the main source of food and for their livelihood. Replacing fluorescent lights with LEDs would therefore contribute to preventing water contamination, help achieve the objectives of SDG 14.1; to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds.