Climate change

Earth Hour a start, but it's too soon to be smug

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2007, 12:00am


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A warm, fuzzy glow of self-satisfaction has descended over Sydney since the city elected to switch off its lights for an hour in order to save electricity and do its bit in the fight against global warming.

The stunt, which occurred on Saturday, was organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature in conjunction with The Sydney Morning Herald and was hailed as an exercise in people power.

Organisers claimed that as many as 2.2 million Sydneysiders - half the city's population - turned off their household lights to mark Earth Hour, cutting normal energy consumption by 10 per cent.

That prevented 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere - the equivalent of taking 48,000 cars off the road for an hour.

After years of having its head stuck in the sand, Australia has woken up to the realities of climate change - largely as a result of the worst drought on record. The clean, green message is everywhere.

Environmental exhortations range from installing a rainwater tank in the backyard to taking shorter showers, walking to work and generally consuming less.

Saving the planet may not quite be within Sydney's grasp, but there have been some modest victories.

Water consumption has been reduced by 13 per cent in the past three years, thanks in part to the 50 water-restriction patrol cars which prowl the streets, sniffing out wastage.

Strict water conservation measures were introduced in 2003. Cars must not be washed with hoses, only buckets. Watering lawns and gardens with drip irrigation systems is only allowed on two days a week. Breaking any of these rules incurs a spot fine of A$220 (HK$1,400) for householders and A$500 for businesses.

'People are sometimes hostile, but the majority are understanding,' said Brendan Elliott of Sydney Water, which pipes water to four million people.

'If they've done the wrong thing, most will freely admit it.'

With the city's reservoirs half empty, saving water by any means possible has become crucial.

Greg Miller reckons he has come up with an innovation which will ensure that Sydneysiders can continue to enjoy verdant lawns and golf courses despite the drought.

Mr Miller, the head of the Turf Growers Association of New South Wales, is promoting a new type of grass that thrives on seawater. Known as Sea Isle Paspalum, it was developed by scientists in the US.

'It's the most salt-resistant grass out there,' he said. 'It can be watered with salt water as long as you flush it with rainwater or grey water one time out of four. Turf growers have always been presented as water wasters. Now we're trying to do something right by the environment.'

But Sydney is still a long way from becoming a sandal-wearing, lentil-munching environmental nirvana.

The city's more affluent suburbs are choked with gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives, and motorists' attitudes towards cyclists remain as hostile as ever.

Australia has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and continues to mine coal as if it's going out of fashion.

Well-to-do Sydneysiders think nothing of jetting off to Bali for a week's holiday, catching up with cousins in London or flying to Los Angeles for a business meeting - in doing so pumping tonnes of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Hours after the lights went out on Saturday night, the chief executive of the organising green group flew to Singapore to talk to regional chiefs about Earth Hour going global.

The irony of taking a flight to discuss an initiative designed to cut down on harmful emissions, rather than picking up a telephone, apparently eluded him.