Is Earth Hour Working?

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Earth Hour is upon us again and you may be tempted, as many of my friends are, to join the millions worldwide in turning off your lights and other home appliances for an hour. Penny Wong and Peter Garrett are doing it. So are Bunnings, Telstra, Macquarie Bank and 99 of Australia’s top 100 businesses, according to Earth Hour’s cheerleaders at Fairfax

While the effort will no doubt fill many with a warm inner glow, there is little evidence that the initiative actually leads to sustained reductions in energy use or greenhouse gas emissions — even from Earth Hour’s official supporters. In fact, in some cases the green credibility these corporations receive from supporting the initiative works to obscure their lack of real action in reducing their carbon footprint.

The Earth Hour website has the glossy logos of a suite of major corporations on its supporters page, including Telstra, Bunnings Warehouse, Australia Post, Colonial First State, Macquarie and Woolworths. But how greenhouse-friendly are these corporations really? I did a bit of digging to find out.

First on my list was Bunnings Warehouse. Bunnings is an interesting case, because the home improvement giant is owned by the conglomerate Wesfarmers, which also owns some of the largest coal mines in the country.

Wesfarmers’ wholly-owned coal mines include Curragh and Premier Coal and account for something like 12 million tonnes of coal mined annually, most of which is burnt in power stations or steel foundries.

I put it to Bunnings’ media representative, Jennifer Glynn from Professional Public Relations, that there was a bit of a contradiction here. "How can the public take Bunnings’ participation in Earth Hour seriously when the Wesfarmers group is such a major contributor to global warming?" I asked.

Glynn emailed me a statement by "a Bunnings spokesperson" stating that "Almost every Bunnings store in Australia is supporting Earth Hour this year for the first time, by switching off lights where possible. Bunnings has a substantial commitment to reducing its energy usage and thereby reducing energy related emissions – you can find details of this [here]. Whilst we make no claim to be perfect, Bunnings is actively working towards reducing its carbon footprint and there are real actions and plans in place to ensure that our goal of being carbon neutral by 2015 is achieved. Our participation in Earth Hour is one small part of this commitment."

Bunnings’ commitment to carbon neutrality by 2015 is indeed impressive — the company is buying hybrid cars, installing night-metres to switch its lights off after hours and implementing water recycling policies across the company. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a big greenhouse gas emitter. Last year, according to its sustainability report, it spewed out no fewer than 186,000 tonnes of CO2-equivalent gases, up 2 per cent from the year before. Bunnings is going to have to plant a lot more trees to become carbon neutral by 2015.

But at least Bunnings responded. Of the other corporations I contacted, only Colonial First State bothered to get back to me. Even Telstra, who copped so much flak during the Trujillo years that they now have a dedicated journalists’ hotline for enquiring media, neglected to answer my questions regarding their commitment to emissions reduction.

Colonial First State, however, is one corporate supporter for whom Earth Hour appears to be more than a bit of green-tinged window dressing. Colonial was one of the first corporations to get behind the initiative, and the firm claims the initiative has led to widespread changes inside the organisation. Media rep Noelle Waugh sent me a media release which quotes CEO Brian Bissaker saying "our primary role is to look after the long term investment goals of our investors, but more and more I’m hearing that our investors want us to do this in a way that is mindful of our environment and the impact we have."

The release cites examples, including "installing motion-sensor lighting in meeting rooms, bathrooms and lift lobbies to reducing the hours each day office lights are on, taking out vending machines, opening up stairwells to reduce the number of short lift trips between floors and installing waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets to save water."

Other corporations taking part in Earth Hour this year include Star City Casino in Sydney, which is turning off its "non-essential" lighting for an hour, including the giant neon star at Pyrmont. "It’s more of a symbol to everyone that we are part of it and agree with the aim of Earth Hour," Star City’s spokesman, Peter Grimshaw, told Fairfax journalist Peter Hawkins. Symbolic is about all we can say of it: Star City isn’t closing its giant floor of energy-hungry poker machines — not even for an hour. That would cost too much, so it’s just going to turn off some lights.

Also turning off a few lights include some of the nation’s biggest polluters. Rio Tinto is turning off its lights at head office and even at a couple of mine sites. You can be sure the giant iron ore mines in the Pilbara will remain open. On the other hand, according to the Fairfax article, "the company had an Earth Hour-themed presentation to staff this week". BHP Billiton will also apparently turn off the lights at head office, as will Woodside Petroleum.

It’s important to keep in mind that these are the very same corporations who have been whingeing for months now about how the Government’s laughably timid emissions trading scheme will lead to the end of the world as we know it.

Woodside Petroleum’s CEO Don Voelte, for instance, has been one of the most vocal critics in the country of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, taking every opportunity he can to attack it. (Of course, we at newmatilda.com have also been critical of the CPRS — but for rather different reasons.) Woodside was still at it this month, in a briefing to Bloomberg. But the nation’s largest oil and gas company is turning off some lights for an hour on Saturday. No doubt Penny Wong can breathe a sigh of relief.

Which brings me to the bigger problem with Earth Hour that no-one so far has made any noise about — and that problem is directly related to the impending CPRS.

If and when the Government’s risible 5 per cent carbon reduction target is enacted, that target then acts as a cap across the entire Australian economy. Any voluntary reductions in excess of this merely make it easier for big polluters to meet their targets. As Richard Denniss and others have recently pointed out, if the Rudd Government’s proposed CPRS legislation is enacted, the carbon cap scheme means that voluntary reductions simply make it easier for the big polluters.

Which means that next year, if the CPRS is passed, every light you turn off during Earth Hour will actually be like giving money to coal miners and aluminium smelters. That’s not something they’re mentioning over at Fairfax.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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