The past Saturday 26 of March, people in 131 countries switched off their lights for an hour at 8:30pm local time to celebrate Earth Hour as a way to express their concern about the planet. Major iconic buildings and landmarks went dark, including the Empire State Building in NYC, the Beijing National Stadium (The Bird’s Nest), the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. This awareness-raising event has taken place yearly since 2007, with increasing participation world-wide. The strip of “lights off” traveling around the planet is a powerful visual that emphasizes the global nature of the climate challenge while sending a message to decision makers and politicians.
Although there has been discussion about the energy savings, and accompanying reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions, associated with Earth Hour, the true value comes from the opportunity to raise awareness and stimulate discussion. For 2011, the organizers introduced the theme of Beyond the Hour, asking participants to commit to an action in the coming year to protect the environment. Apps for mobile phones and other social networking tools are being deployed to share these goals and create a community of change.
It has been noted that turning off all electrical appliances for an hour is an inadequate guide for lasting behavioral change. It is not feasible for us to relinquish electricity. There is an additional risk to “feel good” gestures: psychologists at the Center for Research to Environmental Decisions have found that once an individual carries out a single action, they feel that they have already done their part. Fortunately the single action bias can be countered by having ready access to a check list of additional steps. The World Wildlife Fund, sponsor of Earth Hour, provides several checklists, such as this one for individuals and families, with actions ranging from proper car maintenance to changing the setting of one’s water heater.
While many of us turn off the lights when we leave a room, we don’t always know the relative impact of other appliances. A plasma screen TV consumes more than twice as much energy as a LCD or a tube television. When comparing appliances, the power consumption in Watts needs to be multiplied by the duration of use, so a hairdryer may be roughly equivalent to a light bulb, because it is not turned on for very long even though it consumes much more power. Since many appliances have different settings, it is not surprising that most people are unaware of the actual energy consumption.
The value of individual action cannot be underestimated and recent history has shown the great potential of grass-root movements to effect change. But the impact of GHG emissions is global. Those who participate in Earth Hour have the luxury of turning off their lights. Yet in 2009, around twenty percent of the world population, 1.4 billion people– primarily in South Asia and Africa, did not have access to electric power. Reducing emissions, while advancing economic development and enabling energy access for developing nations, requires coordinated efforts across the globe. An important action that Earth Hour enthusiasts might want to consider is to directly contact their elected representatives to request stronger energy efficiency standards and other climate legislation.