What ‘Earth Hour’ backers don’t have: a real vision

- By Bjorn Lomborg

Copenhagen’s central square hardly competes with New York’s Times Square for glitz, but it is prime commercial space in my home of Denmark. Now there’s a new advertiser among the neon signs: a brightly lit billboard exhorts everyone to participat­e in “Earth Hour,” the 60 minutes on Saturday night in which the whole world is urged to dim the lights to cut greenhouse emissions.

There is a certain irony in renting brightly lit advertisin­g space to exhort us to save electricit­y for one hour — but this is apparently lost on the organizers. Dimming the lights is promoted online as a “vote for mother Earth” that will reveal “the impact we have on the environmen­t.” Actually, the only real result will be to make it harder to see. The environmen­tal effect of the past three annual lights-out hours has been negligible. If everyone in the world participat­ed in this year’s Earth Hour, the result would be the same as turning off China’s carbon emissions for roughly 45 seconds.

When we switch off the electricit­y, many of us turn to candleligh­t. This seems natural and environmen­tally friendly, but unfortunat­ely candles are almost 100 times less efficient than incandesce­nt light bulbs, and more than 300 times less efficient than fluorescen­t lights. Using one candle for each extinguish­ed bulb cancels the CO2 reduction; two candles emit more CO2.

Millions of well-intentione­d people will take part in Earth Hour. I commend the efforts by organizers to encourage participan­ts to continue engaging in environmen­tally friendly choices such as recycling or saving energy after the hour has actually ended. But I fear that the campaign is symptomati­c of an environmen­tal movement that has become too focused on hollow, feel-good actions that at best only inch us in the right direction.

In a bid to cut carbon emissions, the environmen­tal movement has pushed for “green” alternativ­e energy to be used around the world. Many countries now provide financial support to solar panels and wind turbines. But this technology is still inefficien­t, so the environmen­tal results are negligible.

Solar subsidies

Germany is a good example. Despite being a fairly cloudy country, it has led the world in solar panel subsidies, spending $75 billion putting inefficien­t, uncompetit­ive solar technology on rooftops. This delivers a trivial 0.1% of Germany’s total energy supply, and will postpone the effects of global warming by just seven hours in 2100. With the financial crisis, Germany and others have to rein in lavish subsidies. It is easy to forget that while sunlight is renewable, subsidies certainly aren’t.

Similarly, many environmen­talists enthusiast­ically endorsed government financial support for biofuel as a silver bullet to cut carbon emissions. The subsidies are now massive and entrenched, and one-sixth of the world’s corn supply is burned just to help fuel America’s cars, contributi­ng to the highest-ever food prices and increasing starvation.

As other countries race to create more food, forests are being razed for agricultur­e, causing more emissions than will be saved from biofuels over the next hundred years.

It’s easy to feel as if we’re helping the planet if we have a government-funded solar panel on the roof, or fill our car with fuel from a tank adorned with green slogans — but the reality is that we’re doing no such thing.

‘Feel good’ policies

It is time to look to a smarter solution to global warming that would domore than just make us feel good about ourselves. We will not make a sustainabl­e shift away from dependence on fossil fuels so long as the alternativ­es remain so expensive. Solar panels are still about 10 times more costly than fossil fuels in terms of cost per unit of energy output. That’s the reason only well-heeled Westerners (being paid significan­t subsidies by their government­s) can afford to install them.

Consider how this would change if our innovation made solar cells or other green energy technology cheaper than fossil fuels. Everyone would shift to the cheaper and cleaner alternativ­es, including the world’s developing nations, who cannot afford to engage in today’s hollow, “feel good” policies.

Much more investment in research and developmen­t is needed to bring about game-changing breakthrou­ghs for alternativ­e-energy technologi­es — something in the order of 0.2% of global gross domestic product, or $100 billion annually.

The harsh reality is that the shift away from fossil fuels will not be easy. Reducing carbon emissions is a lot more difficult than dimming the lights for an hour. It requires genuine willpower and investment. Instead of just dimming our lights, we need to get much brighter about solving global warming.

Bjorn Lomborg is the subject of the film COOL IT, out on DVD March 29. He is also the author of The Skeptical Environmen­talist and Cool It, and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center at Copenhagen Business School.

 ?? By Brendon Thorne, Getty Images for WWF ?? Countdown: Lanterns are released over Sydney. On Saturday, everyone is asked to switch off lights for an hour at 8:30 p.m. for Earth Hour.
By Brendon Thorne, Getty Images for WWF Countdown: Lanterns are released over Sydney. On Saturday, everyone is asked to switch off lights for an hour at 8:30 p.m. for Earth Hour.

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