You won’t save the world by spending Earth Hour in the dark, but experts say there are plenty of individual steps you can take to help the environment, from adjusting your diet to supporting climate-change initiatives like a carbon tax.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is asking everyone to switch off their lights from 8:30-9:30 p.m. on Saturday, as part of its annual Earth Hour.
The campaign started in 2007 to promote energy conservation in Australia, and has since morphed into a global movement aimed at raising awareness about the environment. The WWF is using this year’s event to call attention to the loss of biodiversity as hundreds of species die out due to climate change and human activity.
Megan Leslie, chief executive of WWF Canada, says turning off the lights is largely symbolic since it won’t have a noticeable impact on the environment by itself.
“It’s not about electricity savings,” she told Global News. “It’s about us coming together as a community to show that we care about this issue, and we’re in it together.”
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Some parts of the world have actually reported an increase in electricity use during Earth Hour. In British Columbia, for instance, BC Hydro said energy use crept up by 0.2 per cent during Earth Hour 2018. The utility also reported a net energy savings of just 0.3 per cent for 2017.
Earth Hour doesn’t do much to slow global warming on its own, but it can open the door to greater change, according to Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says there are many small changes people can make to cut down on the greenhouse gas produced by their everyday actions — something often referred to as a carbon footprint.
The United States produces 16.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita, according to 2014 data from the World Bank. Canada produces slightly less, at 15 metric tonnes per capita. That means one person’s annual carbon footprint would weigh about as much as three African elephants.
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“We need to remind ourselves that climate change is a long-term problem and the solutions are long-term,” Knittel told Global News.
“We need to change habits for decades, not just for one hour.”
Here’s how you can tweak your own habits to knock a few tonnes off your carbon footprint on this planet – and perhaps save it for the generation after you.
The world at stake
Top United Nations scientists warned last year that humans are on the verge of causing irreversible damage to the climate within the next three decades unless drastic action is taken to reduce carbon emissions and prevent the world’s average temperature from warming by 0.5 C.
A massive report from 90 UN scientists paints a dire picture of the situation, and offers little hope that the world will actually rise to the challenge. However, a handful of those scientists are cautiously optimistic.
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“We have a monumental task in front of us, but it’s not impossible,” said Natalie Mahowald, lead author of the study and a climate scientist at Cornell University. “This is our chance to decide what the world is going to look like,” she told The Associated Press in October.
The report also warned that climate change and human activity are proving catastrophic for the world’s biodiversity.
“A major species extinction event, compromising the planetary integrity and Earth’s capacity to meet human needs, is unfolding,” the report says.
Switching off the lights doesn’t go far enough
Turning off the lights is actually one of the least effective ways to save energy around the house, according to Seth Wynes, a PhD candidate studying individual carbon emissions at the University of British Columbia. He also co-authored a paper analyzing the carbon footprint of more than 100 factors in a person’s daily life.
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Wynes says Earth Hour can be misleading because lights are a major factor in our lives, so we wrongly assume that they have a major impact on the environment. He says there are many other less noticeable lifestyle factors that can actually have a greater impact on a person’s carbon emissions.
“You can save more energy by switching your washing machine to cold water than by turning off the lights,” Wynes told Global News. He adds that most modern LED lights are extremely energy-efficient, so it’s more helpful to upgrade the lights in your home than to switch them off for an hour.
“That doesn’t require you to constantly make good decisions about turning them off,” he said. “You just purchase LED light bulbs once — they save you money and they’re more efficient all of the time that you use them.”
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You can also save a lot of energy by easing up on your use of heaters and air conditioners, according to MIT professor Knittel.
“It’s the sum of lots of smaller decisions that can have a bigger impact,” he said.
Knittel also recommends getting a hybrid, electric or more fuel-efficient vehicle the next time you buy a car, and cutting down on needless travel.
Cutting and taxing carbon to save the climate
Wynes says the most effective way to reduce our individual carbon footprint is to change the way we eat and travel because those are among the largest contributors to a person’s CO2 emissions.
“The best things you can do for the climate would be to eat a plant-based diet, avoid air travel and live car-free,” Wynes said.
Meat generally requires more land, resources and effort to produce than the equivalent amount of any plant-based crop, Wynes says. He adds that eating plants is good for biodiversity because it reduces the need to convert forests into farmland for cattle.
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However, the “best hope” to fight climate change is for more countries to embrace a carbon tax, according to Knittel.
“If we can each do our small share to get a carbon tax adopted, then those efforts are going to have a much larger impact than our own individual impacts,” said Knittel, who lives in the United States.
The Canadian government is poised to introduce a federal carbon tax on Monday, which will take effect in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, where no provincial carbon taxes exist. The pricing scheme is expected to add approximately $2 to the cost of a tank of gas, and $8 to natural gas users’ monthly heating bill.
Wynes says it’s unfortunate that carbon pricing has become a politically polarizing issue.
“It brings up all of these cultural ties that people have,” he said. “When they hear ‘carbon tax,’ that brings to mind whatever political group they are a part of, and often people make their decision based on that rather than the evidence,” he said.
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Wynes says all governments need to move aggressively to curb global warming through measures like the carbon tax. That’s why he encourages people to support Earth Hour as a symbolic gesture to show lawmakers that their voters care about climate change.
“Turn off those lights, but somewhere in that day, also find time to contact an elected official and let them know … ‘I want you to do more than symbolic action,’” Wynes said.
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WWF Canada’s Megan Leslie hopes people will also do more than symbolic actions after Earth Hour.
“As soon as the lights come back on, get on your phone or get on your computer and join something,” she said.
“Individual actions add up … especially if we’re doing them together as a community.”