March 23, 2013

Earth Hour and the message behind it

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Tonight the world celebrated the annual Earth Hour, an hour-long period during which many people and organizations turned out the lights around the world.  I've been taking part annually since 2009, and there was never ever any question that I would make sure that my schedule doesn't conflict with this important event.

A few days ago I came across this piece where someone wrote about how Earth Hour was all wrong and "a waste of time".  This bozo clearly doesn't get it.  No one is advocating going back to the Middle Ages and not use electricity.  He's exactly the type of guy who is helping to ensure that we continue to ruin our environment for generations to come.  Apparently someone else also thinks this guy's a bit of a tool...

No, Earth Hour isn't about how much electricity you can save in an hour.  It's true that the energy we save by turning out a few lights for just one hour out of an entire year isn't all that significant.  The real importance of this event is that we are raising awareness around the world.  More people are aware that we need to do something about our environment, and we need to try to remember that message as we go about our lives on a daily basis.

A lot of the electricity that we consume is wasted.  Every major metropolis wastes a lot of energy lighting up its buildings at night, even when people aren't in the buildings.  Recently Hong Kong was cited as having the worst "light pollution", and the famous skyline is really built on the massive amount of electricity that is wasted nightly.  The University of Hong Kong set up a monitoring network to monitor the brightness of our skies, and is doing a roadshow to educate the public in support of Earth Hour.

More than just lights, Hong Kong and other cities around the world waste energy in other ways, too.  According to Hong Kong's Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, some 30% to 50% of Hong Kong's energy consumption goes to air conditioning (the figure was 44% in a 2006 survey).  For some reason restaurants, movie theaters, office buildings…etc. in Hong Kong insists on blasting air conditioning all year round, even when it's not hot indoors.  When you go to a restaurant and feel you need to put on more layers of clothing compared to when you were out on the street, there's something seriously wrong.  A survey showed that 65% of Hong Kong schools have their air conditioning turned on when the ambient temperature is 25°C or below, and some schools have them on even when temperature is below 20°C.  That just strikes me as ludicrous.

In this respect I'm glad that Japan and Taiwan are both making strides, advocating that air conditioning thermostat settings are set at no lower than 25°C.  I myself find that 26° or even 27°C would be comfortable enough, and often forgo the use of air conditioning altogether in favor of fans, which consume a lot less energy.  Outside a major department store in Taipei, a giant poster of a polar bear unplugging a power cord from a socket reminds people to conserve energy.  (Yes, an appliance still consumes electricity when it's on "standby" or plugged in)

Ever since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, there has been a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment around the world, particularly here in Asia.  Currently there's a big debate in Taiwan about whether to proceed with the construction of the latest nuclear power plant - a project which has been delayed for years due to flip-flopping government policy.  Yes, I understand that if it's not handled properly, nuclear disasters can be devastating, and pollute the environment for generations.  But what are our current alternatives to produce electricity?

Well, hydropower is considered clean, but the number of hydropower plants a country can build is constrained by its geography.  Wind power isn't widespread enough, and not commercially viable in enough areas.  Solar power is still a long way from being commercially viable.  If we don't want nuclear power as a solution, what are we left with?  Fossil fuels?  Oh yeah, we all know THAT is the cleanest source of energy around…

I recently saw this picture being posted on Facebook, and just had to repost it on my profile.  Over the last 10 years, my fellow Taiwanese have managed to protest against every form of power generation proposed by the government utility, whether it was based on fossil fuel, hydro, wind, solar or nuclear.  My immediate reaction was: "WTF?!  If you're gonna be against every form of electricity generation, what are you gonna do to generate the power you consume?  Are you gonna use "human power" and generate it by riding a stationary bicycle?!"

The best solution to helping our environment and reduce our carbon footprint, of course, is to reduce our energy consumption.  THAT is the true message behind Earth Hour.

So… back to tonight.  I parked myself by the waterfront near Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui, and waited as the lights started going out just before 8:30 p.m.  I was heartened to hear an announcement along the waterfront that the nightly Symphony of Lights - a silly laser and light show - was cancelled tonight because of Earth Hour.  As 8:30 p.m. hit, MOST of the buildings in my field of vision went dark.  Well, kinda… Most of the external lights, LEDs and neon advertising were turned off, and while the harbor didn't go completely dark, it was a damned sight better than what it looked like just minutes ago.

As I scanned around the harbor towards the Hong Kong side, I could see that the only building remaining stubbornly lit was the Agricultural Bank of China.  It never occurred to anyone there to do anything for Earth Hour, and for that they stood out among their neighbors. After a delay of 15 minutes, the red Toshiba neon sign finally went out, and a few minutes later a neighboring LED sign (appropriately advertising an LED company) went dark.  The Garden and WeChat signs near Victoria Park never budged, and remained lit all evening.

A few of the neon lights started coming back on around 9:15 p.m., and by 9:35 p.m. we were pretty much back to normal.  It took me a couple of minutes to get used to the lights again, and the big LED sign from Samsung directly across from me seemed particularly blinding.  I'd put it as one of the biggest contributors to light pollution here.

I'm so happy to see the increased level of participation around Hong Kong, raising awareness among the general public.  My office building was a participant, and hell, even the apartment building I'm staying in - which is in the boonies - posted notices about the extent of their participation in Earth Hour. If buildings so far away from Victoria Harbour are doing it, there is hope after all!

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