Nostalgia and the Night Sky, Courtesy Earth Hour

Switching off lights for 60 minutes in a year on a perfect spring Saturday night in Sydney, when it was neither too hot nor too cold for comfort and most offices and businesses were closed anyway, one can't help but question the contribution of the Earth Hour to the cause of tackling climate change.

An event that started in Sydney last year had about 25 countries participating this year. So is it, indeed, "Our (Sydney's) gift to the world"? As one of the Sydney Morning Herald readers wrote in the letters' column, "The headline shouts of our vanity, selfishness and self importance".

International Energy Agency 2005 estimates indicate that about 25 percent of the global population, totalling approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. In most developing countries where power cuts are the norm, staying without electricity for an hour is routine. There is an 'Earth Hour' or rather 'Earth Hours' almost every day of the month and year.

Uninterrupted power is not a luxury enjoyed in developing countries and that's the reason most of the countries that participated in the 2008 Earth Hour were from the developed world. The organisers are hoping that if the highly populated countries of India and China join the Earth Hour, the 2009 edition will have one billion people participating.

I am nostalgic about those long dark Indian summer nights, when fans would come to a grinding halt and everyone would roll the bedding and climb up on the terrace to sleep under a starlit sky, in the comfort of natural cool breeze. For adults and children across terraced houses, it was a time to catch up, have fun and play games, now almost extinct in our high tech age.

Living in floodlit modern cities, Earth Hour provided that rare opportunity to enjoy the night sky. By switching off people did realise simple pleasures of time with oneself, with the family, friends and neighbours even though lights were out! As one colleague wrote, electricity was ambushed by advertising mavens promoting candle light dinners and the likes.

Cities and icons blacking out did send a message that the time to cut emissions and for governments to act on sustainable policies to save our planet is now or never, but Earth Hour is only a symbolic gesture.

According to the 2007-2008 Human Resource Development Report, an independent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme, countries vary widely in their contribution to the emissions that are driving up atmospheric stocks of greenhouse gases.

With 15 percent of the world population, rich countries account for almost half the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). High growth in China and India is leading to a gradual convergence in 'aggregate' emissions. However, per capita carbon footprint convergence is more limited.

The carbon footprint of the US is five times that of China and over 15 times that of India. In Ethiopia, the average per capita carbon footprint is 0.1 tonnes of CO2 compared with 20 tonnes in Canada.

As Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, writes in the report, while the rich are learning how to float on water, the poor are learning how to float in it, "creating a world of 'adaptation apartheid'."

The organisers of Saturday night's Earth Hour event believe Australia's power use was reduced by at least five percent when the lights were turned off for an hour. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries account for 8,795 per capita kilowatt-hours of electricity consumption as against developing countries, which account for 1,221 per capita kilowatt-hours.

What the Earth Hour did reveal is that people across the globe are concerned and aware more than ever before of impending doomsday, if we don't cut greenhouse gas emissions now.

A GetUp poll conducted by Galaxy Research has found that in the upcoming federal budget, 76 percent Australians would rather see the Australian government subsidise the renewable energy industry, like wind and solar, rather than the fossil fuel industry.

Previous Australian federal budgets subsidised the fossil fuel industry to the tune of Australian $9 billion (US$8.18 billion) annually. For every Australian $28 (US$ 25.46) the government spent on the fossil fuel industry, only Australian $1 was spent on renewable energy.

So would we observe Earth Hour every night? Like everything else we can, if we want to. It will only need small modifications to our current consumerist lifestyles and lasting behavioural changes, which may have health benefits too. For example, having dinner before sunset, taking a walk rather than being glued to the television or laptop, using less heating and air-conditioning, and switching to cleaner appliances and technologies.

(Neena Bhandari can be contacted at


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