Earth Hour and Earth Day — do they really matter?

I am in an eco-funk. After many years of environmental volunteering and efforts to engage my fellow citizens, this year’s disappointing winter – I like my winters cold and with lots of snow – and our current confused spring have made me a little cynical about un-met expectations.

Last month my expectations of the annual Earth Hour on March 19 were surprisingly low for a greenie like me, and seemed justified a few days later when I heard some of the results on CBC Radio. Let me explain.

Launched in Sydney, Australia in 2007 and now organized by the World Wildlife Fund, this annual event takes place around the world, usually on the last Saturday in March. The motto is ‘lights off’ for one hour, to raise awareness about environmental issues and climate change.

I do like the romantic notion of dining by candlelight, and the positive socializing effect of lantern walks and an electricity- and electronics-free evening on friends, families, and communities. But how much difference does it really make to turn off lights and gadgets for just one hour of the year?

The only mention I saw or heard of Earth Hour was a banner hung in Kew Gardens. No mention on the radio or television, and I heard nobody talking about it, never mind planning or organizing anything for the night. (My cat and I had a quiet evening by candlelight.)

I admit, it is remarkable to read that a total 178 countries and territories participated in this year’s event, according to EarthHour.org. That is an impressive 91 per cent of the world’s total countries. Four hundred landmarks, such as Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Sydney’s Opera House, New York’s Times Square, and yes, our own CN Tower went dark. Many education programs have been sparked as a result, and seven countries are aiming to introduce climate change policies.

But there it is: just seven of 178 participating countries plan any substantial action. That’s a measly 3.9 per cent.

It doesn’t help knowing that too many political leaders worldwide are doing too little, too late. Like our Ontario government, that announced a recent meeting by the Standing Committee on General Government to consider including in Bill 172, Climate Change Mitigation and Low-Carbon Economy, an act to ‘respect greenhouse gas’ (GHG). We have known for decades that GHGs are a significant issue and now, in 2016, those in power are only just talking about thinking about making changes!

In the days following Earth Hour, I heard on the radio that the participating buildings, businesses, and residents in Toronto achieved just a 3.2 per cent energy reduction by turning off the lights – equivalent to about 36,000 homes. This is why I get cynical.

That says to me that too few businesses, individuals and families participate, and only lip service is paid here and there. Even for those who do participate, what about the other 364 days every year?

A spokeswoman for Toronto Hydro was more enthusiastic, stating that while overall participation in the yearly event has declined – not just in Ontario but in other provinces as well – annual power use has dropped by more than 23 per cent since 2005. So people actually are reducing their daily energy usage, and on an ongoing basis.

Coming up quickly is Earth Day on April 22, which is apparently the largest environmental event in the world. The non-profit organization Earth Day Canada claims that more than 6 million Canadians celebrate the day every year by participating in some kind of activity in their community or school. Again, the point is environmental awareness and participation, with a goal of longer-lasting habit changes.

The City of Toronto coordinates an annual ‘Clean Toronto Together’ event (also known as ‘The Mayor’s 20-minute cleanup’), to encourage quick and manageable clean-ups by schools and businesses on Earth Day. Anywhere goes: from local parks, playgrounds, trails, and beaches to laneways or sports fields. The city provides litter and recycling bags and coordinates waste removal for all events that register online or call 311. So far, the City has received registrations from 500 schools, 114 businesses, and 199 community initiatives.

Despite my touch of cynicism of late, I am still coordinating a Greening Ward 32 spring clean-up of Woodbine Park, starting at the north-east corner at Queen and Eastern Avenue on Saturday, April 23, at 10 a.m. To join in, call me at 647-208-1810 or find another local registered clean-up group on the city’s website at bit.ly/1oTTwTx (pdf).

Maybe – just maybe – Earth Day encourages more lasting green activism than I think.

 

Martina Rowley is an environmental communicator  ~  martina@beachbusinesshub.ca  ~  647-208-1810
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