Earth Hour provides an opportunity to ‘get real’

This annual event is far from a success in encouraging renewable energy or any aspect of ameliorating climate change, but 2019 can be different if we try.

If we assume that most people now understand the reality of our changing climate, perhaps this is a good year to drastically change what we do during Earth Hour.

Launched in 2007, this annual ritual asks us to turn off all non-essential lighting from 8:30 to 9:30 pm on Saturday March 30. This admirable gesture has raised public awareness of the need to take action on climate change, but the event is badly flawed in almost all other aspects.

First, how can there be ANY non-essential consumption of ANY energy at ANY time? This is called ‘waste' that someone must pay for. If any company or politician expects a pat on the back for briefly turning off lights that should not be on, the appropriate response is public condemnation.

It is less expensive to buy electricity at night and on weekends, but in jurisdictions where a utility generates from a source that cannot be curtailed (such as the province of Ontario where 60% of power comes from nuclear reactors), much of the output generated during these periods must be sold at a loss because it is not stored for peak demand. Any short-term decline in consumption on a Saturday night will exacerbate that financial loss.

In Canada, electricity comprises only 20% of the energy mix and, despite the rapid growth in low-carbon output from solar panels, wind turbines, hydro dams or nuclear, Earth Hour does nothing to discourage combustion of fossil fuels, which are 80% of the mix and almost 100% of the carbon problem.

In my city, the local distribution company used to monitor real-time electricity use of its 300,000 customers, and it showed that consumption during Earth Hour declined 37,000 kilowatts, equivalent to each home turning off 1½ incandescent lightbulbs.

By 10:00 pm (30 minutes after Earth Hour ended), consumption was back to 85% of the level at 8:00 pm, which means that only strongly committed residents were making a statement of support, but a very weak statement at that.

This lack of sustainability in environmental behaviour is of grave concern. Asking people to participate in a fleeting activity that demands virtually no effort or commitment, and has minimal impact on the goal of ameliorating climate change, means that well-intentioned citizens may think they have done their part to save the planet and can relax for another year, rather than get off their duffs and work towards a solution.

I have been deeply involved in climate advocacy for 30 years, from training under Al Gore in his Climate Reality initiative, to renovating my older house into one of the top-20 energy-efficient homes in Canada. There are hundreds of actions that middle-class Canadians can take to mitigate an environmental Armageddon, rather than simply reciting the mantra of 1.5°C. Watching television in subdued lighting on a Saturday night once a year, does not qualify even as a proverbial ‘baby step' and is no longer a viable option.

When WWF launched Earth Hour in 2007, the event was intended to demonstrate how easy it was for individuals to start acting in an appropriate manner. Twelve years later, the UN climate panel warns that we have the same amount of time left to adopt a large arsenal of sustainable behaviours and to shift all our environmental actions into super high gear … or else.

This half-way point shows clearly that our past actions have not been enough, and are woefully inadequate for the future task ahead. Every citizen must become serious about reducing our energy emissions, and then work very hard to transition this softer footprint into sustainable options.

Earth Hour must stop being an acceptable excuse for doing almost nothing, but the iconic event can redeem itself if it morphs into a starting point that will accelerate adoption of the many measures which are necessary to avoid the environmental crisis that we know is coming.

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