Earth Hour is Pointless in Quebec

According to Wikipedia:

Earth Hour is an international event that asks households and businesses to turn off their lights and non-essential electrical appliances for one hour on the evening of 29 March at 8PM local time to promote electricity conservation and thus lower carbon emissions.

I’m all for lowering carbon emissions. But if you live in Quebec, turning off your lights will have no effect on carbon emissions. The reason is simple; virtually all of the electricity consumed in Quebec is derived from hydroelectric power stations. Hydroelectric power stations do not create carbon emissions!

In most of the world, electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. Generating stations burn coal, oil, natural gas, and other fuels in order to drive the turbines that generate the electricity. In Quebec, it’s all done by gravity – gravity forcing water through turbines built into dams way up north in James Bay. (Hold that thought on the damage caused by large scale hydro damming; I’ll get to that later.)

Several months ago, I heard a debate on CBC radio between representatives of the Sierra Club of Canada and Hydro Quebec. It was revealed that damming causes some carbon emissions due to the flooding, and as the vegetation in the flooded grounds rots under water, it releases CO2. There are many factors that affect how much CO2 is released, including vegetation type and the temperature of the water. In tropical areas like the Amazon, the amount of CO2 created can equal about 10% of what would be generated by burning fossil fuels instead. Put another way, even in the Amazon, hydro power creates 90% fewer carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels.

Shoot north to James Bay and that figures is reduced to between 1- and 3%. So even in the worst case scenario, Hydro Quebec electricity generation creates 97% fewer emissions than the electricity generated by fuel burning methods.

Here’s the kicker; it was the Sierra Club guy who said all that.

That said, I will firmly state that even in Quebec, it is important to conserve electricity. There are at least two reasons why:

  1. By using less electricity in Quebec, we reduce the need to build more dams in Northern Quebec. On the matter of carbon emissions, Hydro Quebec is an absolute darling, but the building of dams and the re-routing of rivers causes other forms of environmental damage as well as political and social problems due to the displacement of people, and so on. But Earth Hour is all about emissions, and when it comes to Quebec, turning off your lights does not lower emissions because there are virtually no emissions in the first place.
  2. By using less electricity in Quebec, we will have more available to sell to places like Vermont, Ontario, New Hampshire, etc., thereby helping them reduce their dependence on fossil fuel burning methods.

You might argue that we should go along with Earth Hour for the sake of solidarity with people in places where it will make a difference, or that we should do it for the sake of awareness.

Awareness? That’s why I’m writing this blog post; for awareness. To make people aware of what electricity conservation in Quebec is really about, and to make people aware of the fact that if you want to reduce carbon emissions in Quebec you should focus your efforts elsewhere.

For example, in the summer, most of my neighbours use gas powered lawn mowers every week to trim their lawns. I’ll bet a lot of them feel pretty good about having changed the light bulbs in their houses to those low energy bulbs. They probably think that by doing so it offsets their lawn mowing.

Not so! Since Quebec electricity creates virtually no emissions, those low energy bulbs have no effect on emissions. Furthermore, one session with that lawnmower creates more emissions than does the electricity consumption of my entire house over the course of a year!

You know that mantra, “Think Globally; Act Locally?” Acting locally should involve understanding your local environment, and how every place in the world is unique and has unique environmental conditions and needs. While we all should conserve water, for example, it’s far less of a problem in Canada than it is in say, California, or New Mexico, or the Greek island of Hydra, which ironically has no working potable water source, requiring it all to be shipped in.

Similarly, the use of solar panels is a great idea in Texas or Morocco, but isn’t really very useful in Yellowknife or Oslo. How about electric cars? In the U.S. they are a red herring, as the electricity they use comes primarily from coal and oil burning power stations, but electric cars in Quebec would literally, in every sense, be emission-free.

You want awareness? How about starting with awareness of what the pressing needs are where you live, instead of just jumping on the bandwagon and going along with whatever you see in the media.

Follow-up: not fully in sync with today’s discussion, but neither is it entirely out of place. Here’s yesterday’s Aislin cartoon from the Montreal Gazette:


The last thing we Montrealers need is another blog post about the abundance of snow we’ve received this winter (and in the past week in particular), but for the sake of posterity and my readers in Australia, I thought I’d post a few pictures.

Here’s our back yard in greener times:

Back yard, with grass (by blork)

Here’s our back yard this morning:

It wouldn’t be so bad if this were January, but it’s the middle of March for Pete’s sake!

Most of this is from the big storm we had Saturday night. Martine and I stayed home that night and I made quails in marsala with figs (mmmm…). The lights kept browning out while I cooked, but fortunately we didn’t loose power. Here’s what I saw when I peeked out the window around 8:30 PM:

Looking out from the living room (by blork)

Next morning, this was what it looked like in the dining room:

View from the dining room (by blork)

On the way to catch the bus this morning I grabbed a few photos from around the neighbourhood. Here’s a street near our house:

Snowy street in Longueuil (by blork)

And here’s a fire hydrant that someone was thoughtful enough to dig out:

Fire Hydrant (by blork)

OK, enough with the snow. Spring please!

What a Difference a Week Makes

(Updated! See below…)

According to Pascal Yiacouvakis, the morning weather guy on CBC Radio’s Montreal morning show, we’ve broken two seemingly opposing weather records so far this winter. Since December 21, we’ve broken the records for snow fall, and for warm temperatures!

We saw that writ large over the few days as the previous week’s big snowfall vanished in what seemed like a matter of hours. I have never seen so much snow melt so fast.

Below are two photos I took recently while waiting for the bus in the morning. The first was taken on January 3, and the second was taken a week later (yesterday).

January 3, 2008

Above: cold (-15°C), bright, clean, and wintery. Below: mild (4°C), grey, windy, and getting ready to start raining again. Which do you prefer?

January 10, 2008

I wish I had also taken some photos downtown, as the change there is even more dramatic. I couldn’t believe it when I stepped outside Wednesday evening; there wasn’t a single scrap of snow or ice anywhere to be seen. Not even a cold grey clump tucked away in a dark corner. Downtown was as snow-free as a day in July.


Five days later and we’ve come (almost) full circle:

Five days later: January 15, 2008.

The Now House Project

I‘m fascinated by the various “off the grid” type homes one sees in books and magazines (like this one, which features a house in Northern California built by Martine’s friends Gaetan and Mario). It’s great to see people thinking about principles of sustainability and ecology in home building, and to actually act on them. Unfortunately, most of these houses are amazing not just in their designs, but in their prices.

After all, a house on a windy hill overlooking Big Sur or nestled in the forest just outside of Seattle doesn’t come cheap. It seems like most of the projects we hear about are along those lines, although in the case of Gaetan and Mario, their house is in a remote location and was built with a lot of hard work and dedication as the main resources.

Still, what about us regular people? What if you don’t have enormous resources (be it financial or otherwise) to put into making your home super-ecological?

That’s why I was very interested to hear about the Now House Project (via a podcast of CBC Radio One’s “Spark“). It’s a project in Toronto that’s all about converting small, existing houses into sustainable, low-energy homes. Specifically, they’re going to turn a tiny 1200 square foot wartime house into a unit that has virtually no “footprint.” The idea is to prove that sustainable, energy-efficient homes don’t have to be newly-built, and they don’t have to be elaborate constructions.

This is just one of the projects being run by Work Worth Doing, the people behind the Now House Project. I like their “triple bottom line” philosophy; “We are driven by a triple-bottom-line mandate that strives to balance people, planet, and profits. If necessary, we’ll sacrifice profits for people and planet.”

We need more of that!