Earth Hour was launched almost a decade ago in Sydney to raise awareness for global warming. The aim of the 2007 event was simple: get people to conserve electricity by switching off unused appliances, electronics and all lights for an hour. A massive 2.2 million people and 2,100 businesses participated in the ‘lights off’ event.
The campaign went global a year later, and today is celebrated in over 172 countries and territories, and over 7,000 cities and towns.
However, over the nine years it has been running, the movement has been critiqued by a number of commentators and experts who argue that the event is ineffective as it actually increases energy consumption.
A Slate article by adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School Bjørn Lomborg, for example, notes that any big drop in demand for electricity -- as happens during Earth Hour -- will allow for a reduction in CO(2) emissions. However, this is counteracted by the surge from firing up gas stations or coal to rebuild electricity supplies afterward.
“When fossil fuel power plants are forced to rapidly increase or decrease the amount of electricity they produce, they also produce more emissions, just as your car burns more gasoline if you’re rapidly accelerating and decelerating than if you maintain a constant speed,” another article shared on the Huffington Post, written by Science Editor Maggie Koerth-Baker, also explains.
Both articles, however, go against stats produced in support of the annual event. According to BeyondTheHour.org, the first Earth hour event in 2007 saved more than 10 percent of energy consumption in Sydney, which was what influenced other countries to adopt the campaign.
The event is also not specifically about saving energy, some proponents say, but a chance to create social awareness; a chance for people to show their support for a clean energy future, low pollution and to reconnect with nature.
This is evident with the themes attached to each year’s Earth Hour. In 2015, the theme was to represent the Australian farmers’ battle with climate change, and the event focused on supporting farmers and food from being affected by an increase in carbon pollution. The 2015 campaign even launched its first Australian cookbook, titled “Planet to Plate”, which allows readers to not only learn new recipes from Australian celebrity chefs, but to learn about the struggles that farmers are experiencing due to carbon pollution.
This year, the theme is for Australians to celebrate iconic outdoor places such as our beaches, reefs, farmland and snow-capped mountains.
“These iconic places are under threat from rising temperatures and more extreme weather. Small changes to our climate as a result of increased carbon pollution are messing up the delicate balance of nature that we enjoy so much, ” the official Earth Hour website stated, pointing to the impact rising temperatures have on coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, the decrease in snow season length and snow coverage in the Australian Alps, and the erosion the country’s beaches and coastlines would be subjected to by rising sea levels.
Author Russ Rodrigues, a guest contributor on Watts Up With That, the world’s most viewed website on global warming and climate change, puts these ideas forward in an article titled, ‘Earth hour – Is it worth the effort?’.
In his post, Rodrigues examined statistics from Ontario’s independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), which looked at the results of Ontario’s Earth Hour event in 2011. According to IESO, Ontario's electricity fell 360 megawatts “or 2.1% compared to a typical evening in late March”. According to the publication, 360MWh of power demand of reduced consumption is a province-wide cash saving of CA$24, 864 (AU$25718.09).
“The WWF certainly isn’t kidding when it asks Earth Hour participants to sustain their actions ‘beyond the hour.’ But details like this aren’t what Earth Hour is about. It’s about demonstrating our commitment to the planet… about taking a stand on climate change… about promoting environmental consciousness,” Rodrigues writes.
“While switching off your lights won’t achieve any material impact in terms of reducing emissions or protecting the planet, at least you can shave a bit off your electric bill while feeling good about yourself. And of course, you’ll be doing your part to 'raise awareness',” he adds.
However, individual lifestyle choices will not solve the energy crisis, critics like Koerth-Baker counter, with the editor adding that solutions to energy issues start with public policy, and that Earth Hour gives the public the wrong impression on how to tackle energy issues.
Speaking to International Business Times Australia, Steven Sherwood, a Professor in Physical Meteorology and Atmospheric Climate Dynamics from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), said he agreed with Koerth-Baker’s Huffington Post article.
“There is something to be said for events that raise awareness but this one has problems. A better one would be something like 'ride to work' day, which gets people out of their cars and onto a bicycle. There is actually a better way of getting around and should be part of the solution to our energy problems, whereas living in the dark is not,” he said.
Dr Mark Diesendorf, an Associate Professor in Environment Science from UNSW, adds that Earth Hour doesn’t make much of a dent -- or din -- to raising awareness as it is simply too “timid”.
“Earth Hour has evolved a little since its first few years of existence when it limited its recommended climate action to switching off lights. Its website says that 172 Earth Hour groups are engaged in projects worldwide, but unfortunately it offers no information about these projects. The only action it offers to people who access the website is to donate, so it misses the opportunity of bringing more people to participate directly in this project. This is very timid climate action,” Dr Diesendorf said to IBTimes Au.
“I agree that the principle changes needed to combat human-induced climate change come from public policy, for example, to facilitate the growth of energy efficiency and renewable energy and to end deforestation.
“However, government rarely lead in developing public policy to create a better world, because they are strongly influenced by vested interests to support fossil fuels and other environmentally and socially destructive technologies and practices. They only act to change this situation under strong and sustained public pressure. Earth Hour makes a modest contribution to increasing this pressure by slightly raising the awareness of the climate crisis.”
But individual lifestyle choices do matter, UNSW Professor of Climate Change Processes Andy Pitman tells IBTimes Au:
“I am not an economist, but I think there is considerable evidence the energy climate does happen from voluntary individual choices. I think there are over one million solar enabled rooves in Australia, most of which have been installed as voluntary choices, either as an economic strategy or as an environmental strategy. If you think about it, one million solar installations in a population of about 30 million people is one hell of a lot and suggests considerable structural change in energy entirely by individuals.
“That said, I fully agree that long-term energy change does require policy to support the rapid and extremely urgent transition from fossil fuels to renewables and there is a significant role of government policy in encouraging this,” he added.
And what about Earth Hour?
“I think [the campaign] has been a useful addition to a range of strategies that helped inform people about energy efficiency and climate change. It is by no means a game changer, but I do think it’s something that can be shared with your family and your kids to highlight some issues that are of genuine significance and to talk about solutions. There are not many examples of this kind, and in that sense I think that power has proven useful,” said Professor Pitman.
Earth hour 2016 will take place on March 19 from 8.30-9.30pm AEDT, with one in every three Australians expected to take part in the campaign, according to Earth Hour’s website. This year, featured events include ‘Earth Hour at the Sydney Observatory’, which will give the over 750 people expected to attend a chance to hear about our constellations and have a close-up look at the sky. Astronomer Fred Watson and other astronomers from the Sydney City Skywatchers will also make an appearance.