WWF’s Earth Hour stunt, whipping up a little mass hysteria in Sydney to turn off some lights for an hour on Saturday night, has been a massive PR success. Too bad it was a con as far as reducing CO2 emissions goes.

Contrary to the media claims, no CO2 was saved, no lump of coal received a stay of incineration. Indeed, it’s not hard to argue that more CO2 was produced by the circus as thousands of Sydneysiders drove to the harbour to watch, well, not much. And then there were all those burning candles and kero lamps…

The SMH’s front page led this morning’s gushes:

In the city centre alone energy consumption fell 10.2% between 7.30pm and 8.30pm, saving 24.86 tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the air. Central Sydney’s mighty effort is the equivalent of taking 48,613 cars off the road for one hour.

Er, no. It didn’t happen. Saturday night’s electricity comes from base load generators – the big coal-fired stations. They are not turned on and off at the flick of a light switch.

Normal Saturday night NSW power consumption runs at 8,500 megawatts. There was a dip of 150 MW/hr between 7.30pm and 8.30pm on Saturday night. That’s vastly more than the 23,613 kilowatts the SMH is wetting itself about – but it’s still just a 1.7% variation in electricity consumption.

Which means the turbines kept turning, the coal kept burning and the CO2 kept being released.

If the people behind Earth Hour and its key promoters actually had any idea of what they were doing, one might have expected they would have known perfectly well what the reality of electricity production is. But never let facts get in the way of a good story.

Lighting is one of the least of electricity’s major worries. The cool rooms kept operating on Saturday night, the electric trains kept running, the aluminium smelters kept smelting and so on.

And it’s just as well they did. If there really had been a sizeable instant downturn in electricity consumption, say 500 MW, it would have been the equivalent of one of the base load stations running into trouble or a smelter falling over – and that could well have triggered cascading blackouts through the electricity system.

No, it’s not as simple matter, but don’t tell the public that. Throw them a novelty item and let them think they’re “saving the planet”.

A bit like those green supermarket bags.