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

USA TODAY US Edition - - THE FORUM - 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.

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