Earth Hour has grown far beyond the expectations of its organiser, WWF Australia, with about one billion people around the world following Sydney’s lead and switching off lights on Saturday night. The United Nations is calling it “the largest demonstration of public concern about climate change ever attempted”. Earth Hour originated in Sydney in 2007, with just 2.2 million Sydneysiders taking part. On Saturday, 3000 cities and towns in more than 90 countries switched off their lights for an hour this year.The Australian Federal Government backed Earth Hour, and switched off lights in hundreds of government buildings including Parliament House in Canberra. The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, praised Earth Hour as “a great home-grown initiative” whereby Australians could “show their commitment to taking action on climate change”. (SMH 29/03/09) An Energy Australia spokeswoman said Sydney had cut electricity use by 9 per cent over Earth Hour and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 21 tonnes.
However, the event’s impact was nothing but symbolic. In terms of energy savings, Bjorn Lomborg , director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre think-tank, said that “even if a billion people turn off their lights this Saturday the entire event will be equivalent to switching off China’s emissions for six short seconds”. He even argued that the use of candles during the hour could actually produce more emissions than electric lights. (AFP 28/03/09) Of course the point of the event was to send a strong message to our world leaders and, in Australia, to ask Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to lead the charge with what is happening in Copenhagen. Indeed, the Australian government has committed to emissions cuts of only 5 per cent by 2020, when most climate scientists think that cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent are needed, and many believe recent droughts and floods are the result of man’s destabilising influence on the climate.
But we can doubt that the event actually encourages people to change their behaviours and consumption habits. Do people really take action beyond the hour or do they think that is all they have to do? To some extent the event has been captured by multinational companies with bas record of environmental destruction (like McDonalds or BP), which “greened up” their image by switching off their lights for an hour; or politicians keen on attending green tie parties while failing to reach a position on the country’s carbon trading scheme. There were signs on Saturday that Australians were getting a little weary of the event when it rolled around for the third time. Polling conducted in Australian state capitals over the weekend showed the number of people participating had dropped slightly in some cases. In all about 10 million Australians observed Earth Hour, compared with 11 million last year (SMH 30/03/09). Let’s hope that the global enthusiasm for change demonstrated on Saturday will still exercise some pressure on decision-makers.