Rhein on Energy and Climate

The World Wild Life Fund deserves praise for having taken the initiative to organise once a year an “Earth Hour” to mobilise humanity on the issue of climate change. To that end, it has appealed to municipalities, businesses, universities and civil society organisations etc. to switch off the lights of public buildings and monuments from 20.30 to 21.30 local times. Since 2007, when the first hours was organised the campaign has become increasingly more successful. On Saturday, March 27, 2010, more than one billion people were involved in 4000 municipalities in 120 countries. For one hour the lights of 14.000 international icons and landmarks, from the Eiffel Tower to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Coliseum were turned off. By all standards this was the biggest ever global manifestation of climate change anxieties!

In economic term, the switch-off was an unmitigated success: the demand for electricity declined between one and five percent depending on the volume of switch-offs. The UN has prudently estimated the value of the global energy saving at more than $ 100 million.

In social terms, people got again used to normal darkness. Hobby astronomers took out their telescopes. Young people enjoyed candle light parties!

In climate terms, the impact was negligible, as many utilities did not take the pains or did not have the possibility to cut down their electricity turbines for just one hour.

We should therefore ask ourselves how long we can afford to light our cities the way we do. Why should parliament buildings, high-rise towers, public monuments, office buildings remain lighted during much of the night? Is this not pure luxury for tourists and the few city dwellers who still take note of the lights? Or, worse, megalomania of the owners of the 400-800 m office towers in Shanghai, Dubai or Kuala Lumpur?

Considering the empty municipal purses and the global climate we should make lighting the exception and darkness the rule. How about lighting the Tour Eiffel or the Brandenburg Gate etc. only every Saturday and for a few hours only? From midnight on lights should be off in all public buildings and street lighting should be dimmed.

By implementing a world-wide campaign for reducing public lighting we would need fewer new power plants, which would be blessing for the climate.

Incidentally, it is sad that unlike Shanghai Beijing, the capital of the biggest climate polluter on earth, has not participated in the 2010 “Earth Hour”. China disposes of a huge untapped potential for saving electricity. Instead of building additional coal—fired power plants it should impose and implement strict thermal insulation standards for private housing and offices.

Brussels 28.03.10 Eberhard Rhein

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