I've been debating writing this post for a while now as I think it can be misconstrued as being too negative and that is not the effect I'm trying to achieve here. I just want people to think about the actions they take when doing something that seems environmentally sound.
It all started when the National Lights Out day (aka Earth Hour) came about and I saw that many were participating in it as well as promoting it. I think it's a great event to get people together and make them feel like they are participating in something large that makes a statement. It can be argued that the event was more symbolic than anything, but there was one thing that was grinding my crackers.
The problem I had with it was how people were making up for the lack of lights/electricity/etc. Instead of going to bed early, many chose to light candles as an alternative. And, while I certainly get besotted by the mood of candlelight and the warm, cozy feeling it invokes, it doesn't come without environmental consequence.
Here's the trade-off: if you get your electricity from green sources* (wind, hydro, solar, etc.), switching over to a seemingly innocuous candle is a bit of mental legerdemain. Were the candles 100% beeswax or soy with a 100% cotton wick? Or were they the cheaper paraffin (fossil fuel) kind? Did they burn cleanly or did they actually contribute to increased carbon dioxide emissions?
For those of you not intimately knowledgeable about standard paraffin candles, paraffin** is essentially hydrocarbon, or a heavy alkane fraction distilled straight from crude oil. Even if 80% of your electricity comes from coal and fossil fuel fired power stations, burning candles is very polluting and certainly very greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions intensive, even more so than electric lighting. In other words, for every paraffin candle that is burned to replace electric lighting during Earth Hour, greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the one hour are increased by 9.8 g of carbon dioxide.
And, for the record, beeswax candles can be considered "carbon neutral" in the sense that, even though it produces carbon dioxide when burned, it’s carbon that is naturally cycled through the ecospheric carbon cycle - not from fossil fuel. But throw in transportation and production energy costs and it gets a bit murky.
So, what was more of an impact? Clearly the total impact is dependent on what the originating source of electricity was as well as the candle choice, but why wasn't this addressed by any of the organizers? At the very least, I didn't see anything about it nor did I notice it mentioned on the blogs of those who participated. If you really want to make a statement about electricity usage, then it should have been all lights out!
Finally, did you put much thought into the alternative you were choosing? If you didn't, would you do things differently after reading this? If you didn't participate, would you consider this in the future when making a candle choice?
*Yes, I realize that there are some environmental consequences to the wind and hydro, but they are considerably smaller than that from nuclear, coal or other fossil fuel driven lighting.
**For all the nitty gritty explanations, science and physics that I've included here, please refer to the originating sources.