Turning off the lights won’t fix Earth’s problems

You’ve got to feel sorry for the Earth.

There was a time it was respected year-round. It was the boss. People listened to it.

But you know how things go. Time constraints, downsizing, upstart causes. Along with copyright, the information society, diabetes and teachers, it had to settle for just a day.

But an hour?

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought Earth Hour was a Conservative Party invention.

Get people to turn off their lights for one hour and then shut up for the next 8,759.

But it was the venerable World Wildlife Fund folks who launched this event. To give them their due, they started it in Sydney. Australia’s fuel of choice is coal. More than 80 per cent of the country’s electricity is powered by turbines that run off coal steam, which is why the country’s greenhouse gas record is so bad. So, when the city flicked off the switch, it wasn’t just a potent symbol, it was getting to heart of the country’s contribution to global warming. In Australia, fewer lights means fewer carbon dioxide fumes.

The next year, two dozen other countries joined in, with WWF-Canada leading the charge. Last year, the event went global. More than 1 billion people in 80 countries took part, according to the WWF.

Three years in, say Canadian organizers, Earth Hour rivals hockey for popularity here. Half the population took part last year, each one declaring a “vote for the Earth” in the campaign against climate change. “We think this is a turning point,” WWF-Canada’s president and chief executive officer Gerald Butts says.

Here’s the problem. In Ontario, the bulk of our electricity comes from carbon-free sources – nuclear and hydroelectric. Since Premier Dalton McGuinty’s promise to phase out dirty electricity, our use of coal-fired energy has been declining. Last year, only 6 per cent of our system ran on coal.

So, when we turn our lights off here, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are cutting carbon emissions. It could simply mean we are spilling less water. It’s like dieting at McDonald’s. Good intentions, wrong venue.

My friends at WWF say the event isn’t really about conservation. It’s a symbolic gesture – hence the hour’s forward creep later into the night, so people can see the effect of their abstinence.

“People are looking for some way to show they care,” says WWF-Canada’s climate change program director, Keith Stewart. “It’s a good way to send a message to the government.”

I believed that last year, before the climate change summit in Copenhagen. We all know how that meeting went. Since last year’s incredible Earth Hour showing, our government has announced it will match the American plan – cutting emissions by 17 per cent by 2020. Sounds good, right? Except scientists say we need a 40 per cent cut to keep the planet from peril and environmentalists have demonstrated that that target is weaker than our original Kyoto Commitment.

We might as well be turning our underwear inside out in protest.

If you are going to take a symbolic stand tonight, at least make one that has a tangible effect. Don’t drive to the blackout party. Walk or take the bus. For most Toronto commuters, one less day of driving a week would cut the same amount of carbon dioxide as unplugging their homes for two months.

Going to a candlelit restaurant? Dine on lentils and local vegetables. Meat production is a big source of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Use all that calm you gained in a dark yoga hall to write a furious letter to your MP, demanding Canada take action on climate change.

This is the underlying hope of Earth Hour. That tonight’s event will prove the gateway drug to environmental action for many unconverted folk.

I hope they are right. Collectively, we can make change. Just not by turning out the lights.