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Earth Hour

March 29th, 2009

I was in Sydney last night for Earth Hour and the difference from the usual city lights was impressive. This exercise is certainly helpful in reminding people of the issue.

On the other hand, I think the implied message of virtuous self-denial is the wrong one. A typical household would save more CO2 emissions by laying out a few dollars to replace one incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent than by turning everything off for Earth Hour once a year, not to mention coming out ahead financially. And what’s true for lighting is true for consumption in general. Efficiency improvements and substitution (videoconferencing for business travel, for example) can do a lot more than any plausible reduction in living standards.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    March 29th, 2009 at 11:36 | #1

    My 15 year old daughter, with all the idealism of youth, insisted that we turn off all our lights for earth hour. We complied.

    However, I did suggest to her that if she paid more attention, throughout the whole year, to turning out lights whenever she left rooms, we would save much more in power and CO2 emissions than in a token 1 hour effort.

    She told me I didn’t know anything. How I lament my lost youth, when I too knew everything. :)

  2. jquiggin
    March 29th, 2009 at 11:39 | #2

    Indeed, Ikonoklast. However, I think you can anticipate a reversal over the next ten years. By the time your daughter is 25 you may know a thing or two after all :-)

  3. Robert
    March 29th, 2009 at 16:00 | #3

    I used to believe that, but without a cap it seems that efficiency improvements are eventually eaten up by Jevon’s paradox with the same or more consumption than before:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox

  4. rog
    March 29th, 2009 at 18:32 | #4

    I am sure that a good time was had by all those happy harbourside campers, including the sellers of those t-lights.

    I think Earth Hour demonstrates just how dependent we are on electricity and how important it is to have it guaranteed.

    Importantly, the lights were switched back on for another year; after the hot spell in Victoria power generators will be mindful of the political implications of having less supply.

  5. Jill Rush
    March 29th, 2009 at 20:34 | #5

    Ikonoclast – my teenager wasn’t the least bit interested as there was too much to do which required light and electricity. Like you I would like her to learn to turn lights off when she is not in the room. Still working on that one.

    I do wonder how many houses like ours there were that the lights stayed on but were counted anyway. I know that my neighbours kept their lights burning through the hour.

  6. March 30th, 2009 at 08:39 | #6

    The cynics might label Earth Hour as a sort of pandering to some greenish notion that we actually care about carbon emissions, however anyone with eyes can see that when the lights go back on its business as usual.

    If curtailing our carbon emissions is actually an objective we need to do a lot more than change a few light bulbs or indeed turn them off for an hour every year. Unfortunately our standards of living and heaven forbid our gross national product might suffer as we adjust to the reality of a carbon constrained environment. Its probably way too late anyway…

  7. wilful
    March 30th, 2009 at 09:53 | #7

    The thing is, I like electricity, lots! It does many many wonderful things. Electricity is not the problem – and I don’t want people thinking that they have to use effing candles to solve climate change.

    (what are the emissions from paraffin candles eh?)

  8. March 30th, 2009 at 10:06 | #8

    I agree that electricity is GOOD! Unfortunately it appears that generating by burning stuff is BAD and it seems we (collectively) seem unable to move from a recognition of the issue to decisive action, due it seems in large part because of the strength of all the vested interests.

    My children and potential grandchildren have a vested interest in a planet not ravaged by radical climate change, but that seems to matter less than the balance sheets of big business.

  9. March 30th, 2009 at 10:26 | #9

    Last year I wrote about Earth Hour and the damage the concept does.
    http://skepticssa.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/earth-hour-stupidity/

    Looking through NEMCO’s annual report from last year we can see than in SE Australia we used 1.5% more power than the previous year…not the same as the previous year, not less than the previous year, but more.
    If we care about making decisions based on evidence how about Earth Hour promotes turning off all power for 5 days each year. That will at least give an idea of how much power we should not be using to just maintain, let alone reduce, our lust for cheap electricity. As a civilisation we are so addicted to constant growth , from the greedy individual wanting more than , to businesses whose only economic model is based on constant growth. All the way to governments who refuse to treat long term issues such as pollution , population growth or sustainable industries with any seriousness.

  10. carbonsink
    March 30th, 2009 at 12:58 | #10

    I laughed out loud when I saw a guy from Energy Australia encouraging us to use less of the product his company is selling :)

  11. Mark Byrne
    March 30th, 2009 at 15:25 | #11

    Here’s a thought

    We need to address two global crises. Peak debt (from expoental debt growth) and the climate crisis. A new money base can do both.

    Firstly, what ever we use as the basis of our money standard will be hoarded and will increasingly be taken out of use for anything other than money. Yet gold has great application in electronics and other technology. We will be poorer without its use in these applications. What ever we use as a monetary base should be storable, stable, and something we want to stop using for other applications. Coal might be able to fill this need.

    I hear that critics of the gold standard point to the way that the market has been cornered numerous times in history. They also point to the battle between those fighting for a gold standard (super rich) and those fighting for a silver standard (working people) at the turn of the last century. The relatively small amount of gold compared to other bases means that the super rich are more able to monopolies it.

    The biggest barrier to making this as a new standard is that it would greatly favour nations like Australia with huge coal reserves, We could counter this in a positive way by including carbon in old growth ecosystems, systems that we want to value without destroying for consumption. There by our money supply would be limited by how much of our ecosphere we preserve.

  12. Hermit
    March 30th, 2009 at 15:51 | #12

    If Energy Australia was nationalised like the US banks the bloke wouldn’t have to lie through his teeth. The power cos aim to sell max kilowatt hours and cubic metres so I doubt they really mean ‘don’t buy our product’. When the city skyline is permanently dark perhaps buildings could transmit user requested text messages. Any firm so brash as to use a neon sign would be boycotted.

  13. SJ
    March 30th, 2009 at 18:03 | #13

    “If Energy Australia was nationalised like the US banks…”

    Would it be pedantic to point out that Energy Australia is government owned, and that the US banks aren’t?

  14. gerard
    March 30th, 2009 at 18:10 | #14

    idealism of youth? my sixteen year old brother wouldn’t even turn off his X-Box for an hour, let alone the lights.

  15. Hermit
    March 30th, 2009 at 20:43 | #15

    SJ I see you are right in that Energy Australia is in fact the direct descendant of the Sydney Council Electricity Department 1904. However their dividends contribute 12.5% to NSW revenues. Therefore I suggest other things being equal they want customers to keep the lights burning. By way of contrast the Electricity Trust of South Australia proposes to put a radio controlled switch in every customer’s home. So far these enterprises have not committed to a permanent policy of generating LESS electricity.

  16. James in Perth
    March 31st, 2009 at 14:39 | #16

    Your orginial points are well made Prof Quiggan. Never the less, there is real value in Earth Hour. It is managing to get people not usually engaged in climate change, to however briefly act on their concern on the issue. Hopefully (in a small number of participant at least it may lead them to consider further action as they realise that many individual actions can lead to a collective difference.

    Perhaps the most important value of the intiative is that is successfully engaging large numbers of people to express their concern about climate change, and that collective action is very visible. This is important because we know how much more political courage our politicians need to make all the right (but inconvenient and therefore unpopular) cliamte change policy decisions. Hopefully these types of collective symbolic acts help with that.

  17. April 3rd, 2009 at 15:06 | #17

    I am touring Laos at present and went to stay with families in two villages in Savannakhet Province that had no electricity. The second of these had a 12v battery to run a baby fluoro tube. Actually, these and the compact fluoros that Australians use to assuage their profligacy guilt contain mercury and/or fluorides and should be responsibly disposed of by their manufacturers. LED lights run from batteries might be a better idea.

    As for “the implied message of virtuous self-denial”, I think a lot more of us will need to ‘get real’ and understand that we need to change our governments to ones that are more environmentally responsible, as their emissions dwarf those of individual citizens.

    Perhaps the point of Earth Hour should be for us to realise that if our ’5% target’ Rudd government and people like Penny Wong and Peter Garrett don’t have the political courage to seriously reduce emissions – they should get out of the way and leave it to people who do!

    Start by reducing your energy footprint but the next step will be to write to your MP and tell these people they have to act now on climate issues.

  18. April 3rd, 2009 at 20:53 | #18

    Domestic electricity consumption, while important, is a small fraction of our energy use. EarthBike Day would be a better idea.

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