Is Earth Hour really sending the right message?

Toronto Skyline during Earth Hour (Photo credit: Mark Blinch/REUTERS)
On Saturday, from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., whatever your local time-zone happens to be, you can join in Earth Hour — when cities around the world will dim their lights, and private citizens are invited to turn off their lights for that one hour.

Earth Hour started in 2007, in Sydney, Australia, and has expanded over the past six years to be a worldwide event. The goal of Earth Hour is to unite people around the world in protecting the planet. Dimming or turning off the lights is meant to be a symbolic gesture, showing that it's through our actions that we can work against the trends of global warming and environmental degradation.

"Earth Hour asks everyone to take personal accountability for their impact on the planet and make behavioural changes to facilitate a sustainable lifestyle. Taking the first step is as easy as turning off your lights," says the Earth Hour website.

Watch the footage from last year's Earth Hour in the video below.

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The point, as it seems, is that by turning off your lights, you might see where you can cut back on your energy consumption, and carry that forward, beyond Earth Hour.

I can certainly support that message, but how much of an effect does Earth Hour really have?

According to a Hydro One news release, "Last year, Hydro One customers saved enough energy to power the city of Belleville during Earth Hour," which translates into 202 megawatt-hours of electricity.

That is, apparently, the equivalent of 143 metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Over one year, that would be around 1.2 million tons of CO2. That's not too bad. However, in 2011, Canada released 560 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Just based on population, roughly 215 million tons of that CO2 would have been from Ontario, so the amount we saved by Earth Hour really doesn't add up to much (about a half of a percent).

Still, this is a global movement, it all adds up and every little bit counts, right?

Well, not everyone sees it that way.

Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, wrote a piece for Slate.com last week entitled Earth Hour Is a Colossal Waste of Time—and Energy.

In his article, he says:

"The organizers say that they are providing a way to demonstrate one’s desire to 'do something' about global warming. But the reality is that Earth Hour teaches all the wrong lessens, and it actually increases CO2 emissions. Its vain symbolism reveals exactly what is wrong with today’s feel-good environmentalism."

"Notice that you have not been asked to switch off anything really inconvenient, like your heating or air-conditioning, television, computer, mobile phone, or any of the myriad technologies that depend on affordable, plentiful energy electricity and make modern life possible."

He has a point. This is about doing something, however small, to raise awareness, but how much of an effect is it really having if we shut off a few lights and leave the rest of our energy-guzzling technology plugged in and powered-up?

Also, whether or not we're actually saving ourselves any CO2 emissions is up for debate. Power generation doesn't stop during that hour, and it typically isn't even reduced, so anything not consumed is just lost. Even if there is some savings, we may actually produce more CO2 than was saved when everyone turns their lights back on, and coal and oil-burning power plants need to be brought online quickly to deal with the increased demand (depending on where you live and what source your electricity comes from, of course).

This is supposed to be about raising awareness and doing something about the problem. However, I think we're all fairly aware of the problem, and although what we're being asked to do for Earth Hour is simple, it might be too simple.

If you participate in Earth Hour, just be sure that once the hour is over, you don't just switch everything back on and forget about it until next year. If you want to reduce the amount of electricity you use, really take the message to heart, go through your home and see what's drawing power that you don't need. Many of our techno-gadgets draw power even when you're not using them (being on 'standby'). Unplugging them, or plugging them into a powerbar that you can turn off when not in use, will eliminate that waste. It isn't much when taken individually, but it can add up over time.

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However, when it really comes down to it, maybe the emphasis on this shouldn't be what we're consuming, but instead where we're getting our electricity from. The surest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to get ourselves off of burning fossil fuels and onto using renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power.

So, perhaps, in addition to turning out the lights for that hour and continuing to consume as little as we can afterward, Earth Hour could also be about taking the time to write to your representatives in government about how we need more support for renewable energy.

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