29 March 2019

Pointless and counter-productive – let’s call time on Earth Hour

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Between eight thirty and nine thirty tomorrow evening, Britain will get a little dimmer – and not just because a bizarrely high proportion of the population will be watching All Round to Mrs Brown’s on BBC1. No, quite literally, the country will become less luminescent, as people turn off their lights in support of ‘Earth Hour’.

Millions of Britons are expected to take part, as are some of the world’s most famous landmarks – including New York’s Empire State Building, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, and our very own Buckingham Palace. It has commercial partners, and, with the same inevitability as death and taxes, a Twitter hashtag.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should be doing more to slow climate change. But when Earth Hour rolls along tomorrow, don’t expect to find me sat in the dark twiddling my thumbs.

There was a time when Earth Hour might have made sense; or, certainly, more sense than it does now. But owing to the development of new technologies, such as LED lighting, the environmental impact of illuminating one’s home has thankfully steadily fallen. In fact, per capita electricity consumption in Britain actually peaked way back in 2005, and is now at levels comparable to the late 1980s – even though the economy is now three times bigger larger and there are 10 million more people in the UK. The improved efficiency of lightbulbs cannot take credit for all of this, but it has certainly played a part.

The energy powering our more efficient lightbulbs is now greener, too, as a result of the transition away from coal and towards natural gas, as well as nuclear and renewable energy sources. Since the first Earth Hour was officially held in 2007, the share of low-carbon electricity sources feeding power into British homes has almost tripled – from 20 per cent, to 56 per cent. Together, these developments reduce the environmental impact of lighting our homes, making Earth Hour an increasingly pointless attempt at tackling global warming. Indeed, according to Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, even if the whole world took part, total energy use would fall by just 0.002 per cent.

But perhaps my biggest gripe with Earth Hour is not so much its dwindling efficacy – if indeed it had any to begin with – but the mindset from which it springs. Earth Hour is the epitome of the miserable moralising so frequently peddled by eco-evangelists; the idea that to halt climate change we need to plunge ourselves, perhaps literally, back into the dark ages.

If environmentalism is to achieve anything, its case must surely be positive, not pessimistic. While some may in theory enjoy the prospect of a romanticised, Rousseauian return to nature, many more will conclude the medicine is worse than the disease.

A defender of Earth Hour might argue that though it does little on its own, it sends a message about making environmentally friendly choices. Whether or not this is actually the case is a moot point – but it would be surprising if it did.

A more likely outcome is that people take part in Earth Hour and assume they are then absolved of all climate sins. How sadly predictable it would be if a well-intentioned environmental campaign actually just lulled people into a false sense of security, thereby doing more harm than good. Given the potential worst-case scenario impact of climate change, measures like switching off lights are a pointless distraction – why not encourage people to eat more conscientiously, purchase carbon offset credits, or invest in green innovations and financial schemes?

From open fires to wax candles, gas lamps and the lightbulbs we enjoy today, humanity has been forever refining ways of artificially creating light. Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the brilliance of human innovation than our ability to illuminate the darkness, which in turn has allowed our species to flourish.

It’s this kind of exciting technological progress – not a virtue-signalling sideshow – which has the best chance of tackling our environmental challenges.

The evidence is overwhelming – let’s call time on Earth Hour.

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Eamonn Ives is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.