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March 26, 2011

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Will dim bulbs see the light?

ANOTHER symbolic Earth Hour rolls around and it's lights-out tonight at 8:30pm local time around the world. There's no meaningful energy saving, but it's supposed to raise awareness. Zhang Qian sees the light.

It totally slipped Nancy Yang's mind to turn out the lights for Earth Hour last year - the environment isn't a high priority for the 26-year-old office worker. But she has written it on her calendar for tonight: "8:30 lights out."

Karen Cheng, a 29-year-old accountant, will hold her third Earth Hour black-out party tonight for a few close friends. They plan to switch off the lights and turn off the power in her apartment for an hour starting at 8:30pm. Then they will take turns telling ghost stories so it will be fun.

Cheng is environmentally conscious and sometimes goes to farms in Shanghai's countryside to try a simple life. But her friend Trisha Wang, who attended last year's party, just couldn't persist in living that simple yet inconvenient life. She gave up. "Convenience was more important," she said.

Millions of people probably will turn lights and power off for an hour this year starting at 8:30pm local time. It's an effort by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to raise awareness and remind people that small actions matter in the fight against global warming. It's strictly voluntary.

But will many people really see the light?

Environmentally conscious and green chic people may do it, companies and cities will boast about their green cred for darkening a landmark or two, and some people may actually think about what they can do to save energy and improve the environment. Some people might take action.

For many Chinese people who do turn the lights out, it seems to be just an hour of fun, no big deal, but nobody wants to say that.

About three quarters of the world's electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels that contribute to climate change; more than 70 percent of China's energy is generated this way.

Earth Hour organizers cast this as a global election: Lights off is a vote for Earth, lights on is a vote for global warming.

"Switching, is what everybody can do without any difficulty," says Zhu Chunquan, project executive director of WWF in Beijing. "So many lights going off at the same time can help participants realize that their little action can help make a big difference."

More than 130 million people worldwide signed up to participate in lights-out action in 2010, according to Zhu.

This year, more than 80 cities, including Chengdu, Dalian and Macau, 100,000 people and 4,000 companies in China will take par in the event, according to the event website

Nobody calculates how much electricity is saved - minuscule in the great scheme of things - but that's not the point.

City lights

In Shanghai the external lighting will go out for an hour on the city's three tallest buildings - the Shanghai World Financial Center, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and Jin Mao Tower. Local government buildings are to turn their lights off, but the dramatic landscape lighting on the Bund will remain on.

Last year, local scenic spots such as Xintiandi and Lujiazui also plunged into darkness to join the Earth Hour event.

Turning off lights is easy. Other action is more difficult. The noxious smell of rotten eggs from a hydrogen sulfide petrochemical gas leak last Sunday ought to remind residents that the Shanghai environment needs a lot of protection.

Actually, lights out is strictly symbolic and doesn't save energy since electricity is supplied to the grid whether it is used or not - it cannot be stored.

Power plants generate and send electricity to a city according to the average energy consumption there, according to George Wang in the Shanghai Power Co's media relations department. A sudden drop in consumption won't change the amount of electricity sent by the plant and the extra power will be wasted as it cannot be stored.

"Earth Hour is not merely about turning off light to save energy," says Zhu of WWF. "It provides an opportunity for people to think about the environmental problems, and think about what they can do for environmental protection."

He says that since it's voluntary, many people will try to figure out little things they can do - turning lights out, unplugging computers, sorting garbage, using less paper, driving less, planting a tree or contributing to an environmental protection organization.

This year participants are asked to make a personal commitment to take an action to help the earth.


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