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08 Apr 14 14:16

In his recent USA Today article Bjorn Lomborg states that "Earth Hour" is nothing but an "ineffective feel-good event". Lomborg is sometimes wrongly viewed as a climate sceptic. However, what he is really being critical of is how the global community has chosen to focus on tackling climate change when they could be spending that money on issues that he believes are more urgent.

In his article he criticizes climate policies that keep electricity more expensive and Western governments that oppose funding new coal-fired power stations - both which hit the poorest, and the 1.3 billion people with no electricity, the hardest. He believes it is wrong to pursue policies that invest in renewable energy that might help pull people out of poverty at a cost of $500/person when using gas electrification would be four times more efficient. In many ways Lomborg's logic is difficult to argue against. "Earth Hour" would need to become "Earth Month" to start to put much of a dent in global emissions because, as he says, more than one billion people turning off the lights for an hour would make the equivalent emissions reduction of China halting emissions for four minutes.

That said, I still take issue with some of his views. I don't think anyone really expects that people turning off their lights for one hour is going to solve the issue of global warming. Of course it's not – but that's not the point. The organizers of this annual event want to remind and educate people of the folly of not addressing climate change and delaying the move to a low carbon economy. The way to change this is to give policy-makers the political mandate to enact legislation and regulation to incentivize the transition. Policy-makers in most countries have singularly failed to take measures that most of them agree are necessary. Yet kicking the can ever further down the road is risking disaster for our kids and future generations. There is a reasonable argument to make that the main scientific report on climate change, the IPCC 5th Assessment Report which was launched last week, could be too conservative in its predictions. This may be the case with sea level rise. What if instead of a three foot rise by 2100 it is 6-10feet as other highly respected climate scientists have suggested? Life in Florida, for example, would change irrevocably by just a few feet rise but higher than that would leave the state unrecognizable to many of its current residents.

Lomborg argues that renewable energy is expensive but he fails to account for the huge global subsidies that go to support fossil fuel production – often the case in developing countries as well as the developed world. According to the International Monetary Fund, annual fossil fuel subsidies across the globe amount to a staggering $485 billion. But there is also no truly level playing field because we have no price on carbon. Sure, regulation is starting to make fossil fuel production more costly but in the US, for example, the carbon and other emissions that make it into the atmosphere are free of charge to the producer. The cost is, however, socialized in that the private citizen and tax payer covers the cost directly (e.g. respiratory illnesses and the increase in health care costs) or indirectly (climate change that is more than likely already causing greater damage through more severe weather - again which, if not insured, ends up as a cost to the tax payer). Furthermore, connecting poor rural communities up to the main electrical grid system may be a far slower, less clean and less cost effective approach than using distributed on-site renewable energy generation such as solar or bio-mass.

Hopefully we would all agree that people living in darkness or suffering from the consequences of noxious fumes from burning traditional fuels indoors to cook or keep warm is wrong in this day and age of enormous wealth and conspicuous consumption in many parts of the word. However, to do what Lomborg effectively implies – invest in natural gas power generation and dump renewables - would be too simplistic and also wrong. We have to have a diverse energy mix for a whole host of reasons (including diversifying supply risk) but the balance has to shift (rapidly) in favour of low, no, or sequestrated emissions through the use of carbon capture technology. When we invest in new power production we are locking in that investment for the next 40-50 years. It is therefore increasingly important that we lock in a power source that is compatible with our future. Right now we are not doing this enough. We are also relying on the fact that we will have time to adjust and adapt to whatever climate Mother Nature is going to throw at us. We are literally gambling with our kids' future and, bearing in mind the extensive knowledge we have on the topic, we are doing this conscious of the facts. It is high time to rethink our approach.

Lomborg: Earth Hour just a feel-good campaign

www.usatoday.com

Instead, give light to the 1.3 billion people who still live without electricity.


Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change, Sustainable energy: Fossil fuel, Nuclear, Solar, Wind


7 Comments

Alicia Montoya - 8 Apr 2014, 10:40 p.m.

Earth Hour is important because it reminds those who know, and informs those who don't know, that together we can cut emissions. It just takes each and every one of us -as consumers, voting citizens, employees, business owners, civil servants..- to act. decisively. today.

Agree with Mark that we'll need a balanced approach like Alstom's clean power strategy:
- a balanced portfolio maximising renewables
- energy efficiency advancements
- CCS
http://www.alstom.com/Global/Resources/Documents/Clean%20Power%20Strategy/alstom_clean_power.pdf

So don't believe sensationalists on either side of the spectrum. No we can't have 100% renewables tomorrow (without a huge hike in prices which would, as Mark and Lomborg argue) hit the poorest hardest. But that's no reason not to continue investing in developing these technologies to make them price-competitive. Shifting subsidies is a clear no-brainer. Which, I guess, makes us.. brainless? ;)

Paritosh - 9 Apr 2014, 3:48 a.m.

So basically, not doing is much more easier than doing. I believe this is what makes it more popular.

Perhaps if together we succeed in trying "not to do", one day we should be able to succeed in "doing" as well.

Daniel Martin Eckhart - 9 Apr 2014, 6:36 a.m.

Good post, Mark. The title certainly grabbed my attention and I'll be taking a closer look at the "Skeptical Environmentalist", Lomborg's book. I'm completely with Alicia on this - it's not the extremes on either side that have it, it's the common sense in the wide spectrum in between.

Part of "common sense" means being realistic, looking at the world and human beings as they are ... and acting accordingly. People find comfort in their known environments and those environments also consist of their belief systems. Changing those systems, getting people to step out of their comfort zones, happens over times - and that's why, as maddening as this may seem to activists who'd like to see instant change, awareness events like Earth Hour will remain very important for years to come.

Erika Frey-Hasegawa - 9 Apr 2014, 9:47 a.m.

Great post, Mark! To echo Alicia and Dani- I agree that it's about finding a balance. Earth Hour is not just about "feeling good" - which Planet Earth will clearly not be with the undeniable climate change truly evident globally by 2050. That's the challenge we face whether we humans like it or not.

Sadly, there is not "one size fits all" solution... Solutions can vary by country, community and individual and so many other factors, that the scientists can best explain. For example, urban planning can benefit from such sustainability insights. I recently attended an event at Swiss Re's Global Centre for Dialogue  http://cgd.swissre.com/events/Connecting_Generations_Metropolis_Now.html Good food for thought was shared in a lively panel discussion.

In Cambrige, MA a major road around the city is closed on a regular basis over the weekend. The tangible results? Children coming out to play on their skateboards, people enjoying outdoor concerts, eating diverse foods from market stands and connecting in person in "real time."

Another side effect? Less air pollution for several densely populated college campuses. Even if it's slight, ask anyone with asthma if that little bit of cleaner air counts. They got my vote! (And no, I'm not a member of the Green Party)

Having grown up on several continents ranging from tropical to alpine climates, it seems obvious that Earth Hour is not just about "turning off the lights" or everyone buying an electric car or simply switching to solely solar power, but a symbolic reminder to the worldwide community. How cool that a side effect is fewer particles of pollution?

I love celebrating "Earth Hour" where ever I am on the planet, as the side effects do "feel good." This year I ended up falling asleep by candlelight and getting a much needed good night's sleep. Perhaps that's a key takeaway?

Maybe Mother Nature is signaling us to slow down a bit. Cut the noise and individually or collectively find a way to contribute to sustain the planet for future generations. Who doesn't want cleaner air to breathe, water to drink and a quieter place to think, work, play or just sleep?

Chris Boyd - 7 Mar 2015, 1:34 a.m.

Not only that, but coal and gas power stations have to run at full rated capacity all the time incase they are needed. If more power is required during peak loads, it's the electricity generating part of the station that is brought online, not the boilers – which are already running at capacity.

It takes a day, in some cases two, to start up a coal or gas fired power plant. You can't just turn them off and on like flipping a switch if there's a dip in electricity needs. So even if we turn our lights off for an hour, it will likely make little difference to carbon output.

Earth hour should be directing people to take political action as that's where real change happens.

Alicia Montoya - 9 Mar 2015, 9:28 a.m.

Sure but I guess you could argue that raising awareness is the very first step in every self-help / 12 step program. Many still don't even believe we have a problem. Check this out: Florida banned state workers from using term 'climate change' http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/mar/08/florida-banned-terms-climate-change-global-warming

Paul Meeusen - 9 Mar 2015, 6:09 p.m.

As a kid, I experienced car-free Sundays. It was during the oil crisis, 1973 I believe, oil prices through the roof and along with other European countries, Belgium undertook this measure of austerity, hoping to help drive down demand and price. People loved it, you could play football, hold a pick-nick on the street and bicycle on the motorway. Point is, people in free markets make decisions through their wallets, but some emotional engagement certainly helps. Watch the newest documentary "Under the dome" about China's smog problem and the scene where a young girl is being asked: have you ever seen a blue sky, do you know what clouds look like? Giving all Chinese electric cars will surely not resolve it, since electricity production in China, along with India and Australia, is the dirtiest worldwide, relying largely on coal, with Switzerland and Norway having the cleanest. In Switzerland's case the answer is largely hydro and nuclear, and now the Swiss have decided on a multi-year plan to fully exit nuclear. A big and much debated challenge but sometimes you have to be clear on your cause first and then determine your course. And that cause is: we don't want our grand children to ever experience anything like Fukushima and we want them to still be able to vacation in Amsterdam or Florida. Where there is a will, there is a way.


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