When the Lights Go Back On: Thoughts on Earth Hour
by Thomas Gomersall
On 30 March at 8:30pm, people around the world will symbolically switch off the lights for one hour as a show of solidarity for environmental protection. But at a time when pollution, over-consumption, habitat destruction and climate change are pushing the environment to the brink, some may question the impact of Earth Hour.
Indeed, eating dinner by candlelight for an hour won’t, on its own, make a difference. What will is if people use that hour to reflect, then act on the changes they can make in their daily lives to reduce their environmental footprint. There are many and they are all desperately needed, particularly if we are to stop world temperatures from reaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The impacts of such changes are not to be underestimated. The latest analysis of Hong Kong’s ecological footprint shows that we would need 4.2 Earths if everyone adopted Hong Kong’s current lifestyle. Seventy-six per cent of Hong Kong’s ecological footprint comes from consumption at an individual, family and business level. So the city could quickly become more environmentally friendly if the majority of Hong Kong people took concrete steps to reduce their ecological footprint. Here are some ways to consider:
Avoid meat and dump dairy. Animal agriculture is the second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter due to the large amounts of methane (a gas that traps 23 times more heat than carbon dioxide) produced by large ruminants like cows and sheep. The climate impact is even greater when land is deforested to make way for animal pasture, as is the case in much of South America.
Fortunately, despite Hong Kong food culture’s heavy emphasis on meat, it also has plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. If you want to sample some of these, check out any one of the city’s growing number of meat-free restaurants. Meanwhile, shops such as Just Green and restaurants like Cali-Mex offer plant-based cheeses and meats that look and taste just like the real thing. But if going vegan is out of the question, even eating less meat will help lighten the environmental burden.
Plastic? Pack it in! While reusable drinking bottles, eco-friendly shopping bags and refusing plastic straws are now widely promoted, what can we do to cut out plastic food wraps or plastics we use in everyday life, many of which are non-recyclable? For one, purchasing produce from wet markets, as few if any of their food comes in plastic packaging. If you do need to use a plastic bag, wash and reuse it. As for plastics in toiletries and cosmetics, local plastic and waste-free shops have sprung up in places like Mong Kok and Sai Ying Pun, while WWF Panda shops in Central and Mai Po Nature Reserve supply items such as bamboo toothbrushes and cotton buds.
Low emission travel. Transportation is responsible for 16 per cent of Hong Kong’s carbon emissions and around a quarter of energy-related emissions worldwide (1). According to government figures, private cars, motorcycles, taxis and goods vehicles make up a cumulative 68 per cent of all of Hong Kong’s emissions (2). By contrast, buses make up only 21 per cent and trains a measly three per cent. Cutting back on our use of private vehicles and taxis could make a considerable dent in Hong Kong’s transport-related carbon emissions. Fortunately, Hong Kong is already well-equipped to allow this. The electric-powered MTR can take you almost anywhere within the city, as can minibuses, 70 per cent of which run on the relatively low carbon liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). But if you want to completely cut out the emissions of your daily commute, get on your bike. Cycle tracks now exist between several towns in the New Territories, allowing you to get from Ma On Shan to Tai Po to Sheung Shui on no carbon at all (3). And with the recent increase in availability of public hire bikes, cycling in Hong Kong has never been more convenient.
Wear less. Save more. On multiple levels, fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil. Making clothes uses enormous amounts of water (accounting for 20 per cent of global water wastage) and overgrazing by sheep for wool and pesticide use on cotton plants degrades soil. Seventy-two per cent of garments contain plastic microfibers that are flushed into the sea during washing. And as most of the world’s clothes are made in coal-powered countries like China, India and Bangladesh, it’s hardly surprising that fashion contributes 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, fuelled by our consumerist, throwaway culture. In 2014, it was estimated that the average consumer bought 60 per cent more clothes than in 2000 but kept each garment for half as long and 85 per cent of old, often still usable clothes are thrown away in favour of new ones. Avoid buying new clothes as much as possible by mending whenever possible and reusing even if they’re no longer wearable such as by reusing them as dishcloth. If you do need to buy, purchase ones made from natural fabrics with low water consumption like linen. Alternatively, choose sustainable brands or buy them from countries with strict environmental regulations like the EU (4, 5).
Earth records every sin. Perhaps the most important takeaway from Earth Hour is that when it comes to the environment, a good deed does not erase a bad one. A recent study published in Frontiers of Psychology suggests that well-meaning consumers may subconsciously assume that making environmentally friendly life decisions cancels out environmentally unfriendly ones (4). In reality this type of thinking may lead to people harming the environment more than they realise. Eco-friendly products still require resources and energy to make in the same way that public transport still emits carbon to move, so using more of both doesn’t magically eliminate any negative effect your actions have had or will have on the environment. As study co-author Patrik Sörqvist points out “Jetting to the Caribbean will make you a huge environmental burden, no matter how many meat-free Mondays you have”. Really, the best way to ensure that you harm the environment less is to consume less in all areas of your life long term.
Happy Earth Hour! Spend it wisely.
6. Sörqvist P; Langeborg L. (2019). Why people harm the environment although they try to treat it well: An evolutionary-cognitive perspective on climate compensation. Frontiers of Psychology.