Two, if they're public servants with a gift for mobilising countries from China to the USA.

The headline-grabbing agreement at the Paris climate conference in December overshadowed another significant international climate deal concluded in the same week. After a whirlwind of last-minute phone calls, Swedish Energy Minister Ibraham Baylan took the stage to announce the Global Lighting Challenge: a commitment by 14 countries, including the USA, India and China, and huge manufacturers like Philips and Osram to ensure the sale of 10 billion energy-efficient LED bulbs in the next few years. The potential reduction in carbon emissions is enormous. With current technology it would be possible to provide 50% more lighting around the world at half the carbon cost. At the time of writing, more than 50 million bulbs have already been sold.

Celebrating behind the scenes were the two young public servants who had come up with the idea and galvanised the substantial international support: Gabby Dreyfus and Chad Gallinat, of the US Department of Energy. Both are PhD scientists who worked in academia and the private sector before joining up with the public service. They spoke to Apolitical about how they managed to bring so many people together, why the right team is crucial to getting things done in government and how they had their lightbulb moment.

How difficult was it to get this done?
Gabby: The thing that’s astounded me over the last year is how easily lighting efficiency sells itself. It’s really difficult to get political leaders to care about efficient water heaters. Whereas lighting comes with a better language: it’s inspiring, it’s illuminating, it’s bright, it’s a better lightbulb. So the concept people can really quickly understand.

It was a little bit tricky to identify a pithy target – the break towards 10 billion bulbs really worked well because we have countries on different levels of development. So there were some that wanted to have a frame of emissions reduction, but if you’re a country that’s actually increasing the amount of lighting you’re offering, you might not be getting a net reduction.

And that’s one of the reasons the LED technology, for me, is so inspiring; when we’ve talked to analysts, the potential is that by 2030 we’ll be able to provide 50% more light at 50% less energy use. It’s half the energy for 50% more people. In a carbon-constrained world, this is what we can do with energy efficiency.

The chart shows the falling cost of A-type LED light bulbs, which are common in households, as their use starts to grow sharply. Source: US Department of Energy.

So it was important to have something that concrete, whether a lightbulb or a challenge?
Gabby: When we were first proposing this to get our minister on board, I actually brought an LED bulb into the briefing, and I said, ‘This is what we’re talking about. I just bought this.’ A note of caution though: I ended up getting a number of questions on the technical specifications of that particular bulb. [laughs]. But I work at a technical agency, I should have known.

Chad: We also wanted to use the Challenge as a platform to put a spotlight all of the really good work that’s being done around the world. The world is transitioning to much more efficient lighting, and it’s happening. We thought that by bringing together all the governments in the Clean Energy Ministerial and encouraging the private sector to pay attention, we could hopefully other countries and companies that aren’t at the forefront to start accelerating.

But where did the idea come from in the first place?
Gabby: We already had a global product efficiency medal that Chad actually has been leading through the Clean Energy Ministerial’s SEAD initiative. And last year it was lightbulbs. What we realised talking to our colleagues is that there was a general perception that LED lighting was still a novely. It was cool, but not yet affordable and acceptable. It’s really in the last year that the data – and going to my local store and seeing a $5 LED bulb – made it really obvious that no, it was no longer a novelty. The technology was here.

So the competition was a big part of it. And then India, which is the co-lead for the initiative with the US, announced a major lighting campaign. It was really following that announcement that we got together with the other governments that are part of the team and it became clear, hey there’s an opportunity here to jump off the work that India’s doing, off what the US has been doing, investing in a lot of research and development, and everywhere we looked there was a lot of work taking place.

And we thought, this transition is happening, but to what level and with what efficiency and quality and affordability, that’s where we can actually make a difference.

Why did you decide to make a difference from government rather than the private sector or through research?
Chad: I came from the private sector. I was working on a very narrow research angle, on a product. The work I’m doing now is not as specialised as when I was doing research there or for a national lab, but the impact of my work is further reaching. It’s more rewarding.

How do you find working in the public service?
Gabby: It has its challenges, but as Chad was saying, there’s something very rewarding about the type of engagement that we can have. The international collaboration is really gratifying.

Chad: I agree with that 100%. I think we have a very special team.

Gabby: In the Clean Energy Ministerial

Chad: So I think we’re all very motivated and we all work together very well.

How important are the right people?
Chad: It’s pretty key.

Gabby: It does make the job that much more fun. And especially at the Ministerial, because it’s collaborative, not just within our office but with other governments, I think it’s 13 governments.

Chad: 14.

Gabby: 14 governments [that have endorsed the challenge. The Ministerial contains 23 governments and the European Commission]. And for example, our colleague from Australia is extremely thoughtful and experienced, and just to be able to learn from him and the work he’s doing – it’s not just people in the office.

Chad: That’s right.

Gabby: It’s the ability to have these connections and relationships all over the world that’s really fruitful.

Chad: Yeah, it’s funny, I think of all our international colleagues as colleagues because we develop such strong relationships with them, from Mexico to Australia to Sweden to India. That’s certainly a feeling of everyone in our office. And all of these people really believe in what they’re doing and make the effort to get on phone calls at very strange times.

Gabby and Chad working on the initiative in Mexico

What have you learned about motivating all these people?
Gabby: One is to keep your eye open for opportunities. We didn’t have to build this from scratch in the sense that there was so much momentum. That for me is a lesson: to look around and see where things are pointing in the same direction but could use an extra elevation. So it’s awareness. And I think building effective partnerships has been really important.

And how do you go about building effective partnerships?
Chad: I’d say that, process-wise, there’s a couple of things. We were very communicative with everyone in the department and we made sure that everyone working on lighting was very aware of what we were doing. I felt like we built good trust and were completely open with everyone in the US, and then replicated that – being very clear and open – encouraging other countries to do that inreach within their governments and private sectors.

We had a couple of snafus, as will happen. There’s probably some text in the documents that will have to go back. It’s an iterative process. Making sure we understand each very clearly. It takes a few phone calls to make sure that we’re clear in the documents we’ve sent out. Identifying those early on is very helpful.

Gabby: In terms of partners, it was a bit of a juggle to make sure that different agendas were reflected.

What do you mean about juggling different agendas?
Gabby: There was a lot of discussion on how much we would focus on things like minimum standards and how we’d go about addressing the fact that different countries are in different places with respect to those. There were some that wanted to focus more on technical or policy aspects and we really needed to balance the inclusiveness with the fact that some countries are going to be more pro-active on certain aspects. I guess I’d have to say that this is more of a carrot than a stick approach. That was one of the things we had to get everyone comfortable with.

The super-bright Tokyo Tower

What was your favourite moment in all this?
Chad: There are two moments that kind of made me giddy. One was during the last Clean Energy Ministerial meeting when the ministers all came together and agreed that this was a campaign they wanted to pursue. It was all the different countries’ ministers around the table and countries were raising their hands in support. Gabby and I were there, sitting in the background, like, ‘We got another one. We got another one.’ That was a very fun moment.

And then when we actually launched the challenge during the COP 21, we were able to watch because they were live web-casting it. The scene was that we had the Swedish Energy Minister and a couple of others talking about it on this global stage. That was also a really fun moment for me, really fun.

Gabby: Yes, the amount of work coming together there, and it was a tight schedule, it was five minutes, but Minister Baylan from Sweden did a fabulous job, and we had colleagues in the crowd – a representative from India and the CEO of Philips – helping orchestrate it.

Chad: It was a whirlwind of activity. We were on the phones. It was fun.

Gabby: And also, for me, in the same period, every once in a while, a little thing I’ve done has connected people and got used – and to see, for example, the agreement at COP 21… There are a couple of things where I know that I had my little contribution – one of many – to achieve what was achievable, and that is very gratifying.

Based on an article originally published on apolitical. To find out more go to globallightingchallenge@org. You can also connect on Twitter @10bnbulbs, @CEMSecretariat, @superefficient