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LEDs: Are They Really Better for the Environment?

Article at a Glance: 

  • Lighting has seen a profound evolution from fire to incandescent, halogens, compact fluorescents, and now LED technology.
  • The light bulb plays an integral part in how humans and the world live every day.
  • There are very clear benefits of using LED light bulbs; however, there is also evidence that the abundance of bright LEDs, especially at nighttime, can have dramatic ripple effects on wildlife and the ecosystems that plants and animals inhabit.
  • To protect the Earth, it’s important to find a healthy balance between using energy-efficient LED lights and knowing when to turn them off.

“The rapid adoption of LEDs in lighting marks one of the fastest technology shifts in human history.” – Goldman Sachs(1) 

The humble light bulb is arguably one of the most transformative inventions since man-made fire.  Throughout its history, it has undergone several technological advances to make it more energy and cost-efficient.  The biggest shift in adoption has notably taken place over the past decade as more people have begun trading traditional incandescent bulbs for LEDs. Proponents of this trend point out that LED light bulbs save consumers money and are eco-friendly, but the truth is that this issue isn’t so black and white. While LEDs effectively power the world’s homes and cities, they also contribute to light pollution that disrupts wildlife and the ecosystems that they inhabit.

What are the Pros of Using LEDs?

Compared to their incandescent and fluorescent counterparts, LEDs are long-lasting, reliable, and flexible. Key differences include the following:

  • LEDs typically use 25%-80% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and can last 3-25 times longer. So, it could be said that LEDs actually help you lower your carbon footprint. (2
  • LEDs emit much cooler light and less heat than incandescent bulbs. This makes them somewhat safer because there’s a lower risk of combustion.
  • Given their long lifespan, LEDs don’t need to be replaced as often and are considered lower maintenance than other bulbs.
  • LED lights can be used in many applications, such as street and road lighting, industrial lighting, security lighting, as well as residential and commercial lighting.
  • The rapid development of LED technology leads to more products and improved manufacturing efficiency, which also results in lower prices. (3

For all of these reasons, LEDs are projected to comprise 69% of the global market by 2020, up from 9% market penetration in 2011. (4

What are the Cons of Using LEDs?

Despite how cost and energy-efficient LED lights are, there are considerable drawbacks to note about these bulbs, including:

  • LEDs emit short blue wavelengths of light, also known as junk light. The concentration of blue light found in these bulbs is actually much higher than what the human body is naturally built to handle.
  • Similar to how overexposure to junk light can lead to circadian rhythm disruption in humans, the excess light we dump into our environments is endangering ecosystems by harming animals whose life cycles depend on oscillations between light and darkness. (5)
Document explaining how LED lighting interacts with wildlife
Source: International Dark-Sky Association

Tips on How to Leverage the Benefits of LEDs and Protect the Environment

In today’s “always-on” culture, we typically don’t think twice about flicking a switch to illuminate our space, but perhaps we should.  Here are a couple of tips to live in harmony with technology and wildlife:

  • Save your cooler LED bulbs for inside your home and opt to use warmer incandescent bulbs for outdoor lighting so that you don’t disturb the natural biological functions of the insects and animals nearby.
  • You can also use red LED bulbs that specifically emit warm red light rather than cool blue light.
  • Be mindful about keeping your lights on after the sun goes down in the evenings. Consider investing in dimmers and/or turning lights off completely if you aren’t using utilizing them.



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