Back in 2004, the World Wide Fund for Nature (or WWF) Australia decided that they wanted to educate and sensitise people about climate change. The organisation wanted to do something dramatic to engage people and make them sit up and take notice of the state of the environment. And thus, in 2006, the idea of The Big Flick was born-which was later branded Earth Hour-an hour of darkness, when people around the world turn off their lights for a cleaner, emission-free world.
What started as a national event, with the first Earth Hour being held in Sydney on 31st March 2007, turned into an international movement of colossal proportions. It was something that even the organisers had not envisaged. In 2008, Earth Hour was celebrated in 35 countries with more than 50 million people participating in the event. National monuments too went dark for an hour and some television stations suspended transmissions temporarily. Google too, in its characteristic spirit of camaraderie, temporarily uploaded a black screen that said "We've turned the lights out. Now it's your turn".
That was then. By 2013 some 7,000 cities in more than 150 countries worldwide had joined the initiative. Former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela tweeted last year: "Let us stand together to make of our world a sustainable source for our future as humanity on this planet". WWF's efforts at creating awareness seemed to have borne fruit. Now, major landmarks across the world, like the Big Ben, The Opera House, Marina Bay Sands, our very own Gateway of India, The Eiffel Tower, The Empire State Building, etc. also started switching off their lights in a show of solidarity for the planet.
Helpful or harmful?
So far so good. However, amongst all the celebration, there was also the obvious question that came to mind: Does Earth Hour really make a difference to the earth? Scientists were not so sure.
If you talk about carbon emissions, the reduction of which is the main aim for a cleaner earth, then the jury is out on whether Earth Hour actually does much to cut emissions. Many believe that it actually does the opposite. The explanation being that once everyone turns off the lights and there is a considerable drop in energy demand, then the power that will be needed to restore supply once the lights come back on will lead to more carbon emissions. This is because when fossil fuel power plants suddenly increase or decrease the production of electricity, they also produce more emissions. Which means that effectively, Earth Hour harms the environment more than it helps it.
Skeptics also argue that turning off lights for one hour (out of 8,765 hours in a year) is hardly going to make a difference in the overall consumption. Added to this is another viewpoint about candles, which have become increasingly popular during earth hour, but which too lead to emissions.
Awareness, not actuals
WWF claims that the aim is not to cut emissions, but to educate people about consuming less energy and, thus, lead to a cleaner environment in the longer run. It does not give out any numbers on the amount of electricity saved during Earth Hour. Its mission, as stated on its website, is "to bring people together through a symbolic hour-long event. To galvanise people into taking action beyond the hour. And to create an inter-connected global community sharing the mutual goal of creating a sustainable future for the planet." It does not say that that one hour does anything to improve the health of the planet, per se. Earth Hour, they reiterate, is meant to "raise awareness".
As with many environment projects, there are two sides to the Earth Hour initiative. Scientists call it "feel-good environmentalism" that really does nothing for the planet. Others argue that it does not have to be either-or, claiming that since this makes people aware of energy consumption, it will, hopefully, lead to cleaner habits. It's a symbolic opportunity, an event that brings people from different ends of the earth together for a common cause.
Whether this will result in cleaner energy and change in public policies (the latter is imperative, say experts) is anybody's guess. If, however, you want to be a part of the Earth Hour this year, remember to turn your lights off for an hour this Saturday, the 29th of March at 8:30 pm. But remember, this is nowhere close to doing enough. If you want to leave a better planet for your children, you will just have to cut down on your usage of power on a daily basis.