Good eco-intentions are no excuse for extending energy poverty.
This feel-good exercise not only does absolutely nothing for the planet, but it ignores the reality that what the world’s poorest need right now is more light and energy, much of which will be powered by fossil fuels, not darkness.
Started by the WWF in Australia in 2007, Earth Hour has expanded to a global event, with public spaces going dark, and in some places, people gathering with lit candles instead.
According to the organizers, “Earth Hour shows how each of us can be heroes for our planet.”
This grandiose statement overlooks the fact that the political campaign saves, at the most, the equivalent amount of carbon emissions as China halting its CO2 emissions for less than four minutes.
And that is with some incredibly generous assumptions. In fact, a small decline in electricity consumption does not actually translate into less energy being pumped into the grid, and therefore does not reduce emissions. While any significant drop in electricity demand means a temporary reduction in CO2 emissions, this is partly offset by the surge from firing up coal or gas stations to restore electricity supplies afterward.
Those ‘environmentally friendly’ candles that many participants light? They are a fossil fuel — and burn almost 100 times less efficiently than incandescent light bulbs. (That’s why you won’t ever find a modern hospital using them instead of electricity). Using one candle for each switched-off bulb actually cancels out even the theoretical CO2 reduction; using two candles means that you emit more CO2.
Earth Hour is largely celebrated in rich, urban areas. Around the world, there are around 1.3 billion people living in the developing world who will not get a choice whether to participate or not. That’s because they will be living without reliable electricity on Saturday night, just like they do every other night.
Increasingly, the world’s rich nations insist that these people — the world’s poor — should have no new fossil fuel access. Foreign aid is increasingly tied to renewable energy projects such as building solar and wind power capacity, or tiny “off-grid” energy generators. This has a real cost — and it’s the world’s worst-off who pay.
This appears rather hypocritical: The rich world relies heavily on fossil fuels, getting just 10% of its energy from renewables. Contrast that to Africa, which gets 50% of its much lower energy consumption from renewables.
Clearly, renewable energy means something different if you’re living in a remote part of Africa than if you’re a well-meaning environmental campaigner in the U.S. Owing to poverty, almost 3 billion people around the world still cook and heat their homes with wood, twigs and dung. And more than 4 million die prematurely each and every year because of the resulting noxious fumes and indoor air pollution.
When the proponents of Earth Hour celebrate renewable energy, they are envisioning modern wind turbines or solar power stations. But the reality is that wood and dung used by the poor are by far the largest renewable energy source on the planet.
Even in the rich world where most solar and wind power has been built, solar and wind make up just 1% of total energy, according to the International Energy Agency. Instead, wood makes up more than half of all renewable energy in the rich world, with hydropower contributing a third. Wind and solar is just one-tenth of renewable, which itself is one-tenth of all energy.
So why hasn’t solar or wind energy taken over the globe? Despite constantly hearing that it is cheaper or close to being cheaper than fossil fuels, the technology is still not efficient, cheap or reliable enough to compete. That is why we have to hand out more than $115 billion in subsidies to solar and wind this year. With an electricity price that is typically lower than 10 U.S. cents per kWh, we subsidize each kWh from solar at 27 cents.
An analysis by the Center for Global Development found that that by investing $10 billion in renewable energy, we could lift one person out of darkness and poverty for about $500. Using gas electrification would be more than four times cheaper. Insisting on renewables instead of spending that $10 billion on fossil fuels means deliberately leaving more than 60 million people in darkness and poverty.
And surveys of the world’s poor show that what they really want is grid electricity — just like the rich world has. For the foreseeable future, that will be mostly powered by fossil fuels — just like it is in the wealthy countries.
What the planet needs isn’t a futile, brief-lived, feel-good political gesture like Earth Hour, but sustained, greater investment in research and development of green energy. Only when solar and wind power are effective and competitive will the entire world be able to afford to make the switch away from fossil fuels.
Celebrating darkness over light is a fitting metaphor for a global environmental movement that has lost its way, and is not arguing for the smartest prescriptions for the world’s poor, or for the planet.
Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, and The Nobel Laureates’ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030, and a visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School.