How many empty offices have left their lights on … and why do it anyway?

I’ve discovered a TV series, shot in Belgium. It’s called Unite 42, and is one of those dramas that you can just lose yourself in. A single focus story for each episode, with a number of core sub-plots being teased out along the way.

I was drawn to it because I’m trying to learn French and immersing myself in films, TV and podcasts as much as I can to get my ‘ear’ in. I was soon hooked by the strength of acting, Constance Gay and Patrick Ridremont in particular.

I won’t reveal any spoilers other than to say it pairs the characters of a ‘heart in the right place murder cop carrying emotional baggage’ with a ‘brilliantly determined hacker hiding secret vulnerabilities of their own’.

In the final episode of Saison 1, Reboot, the plot shows the lights going off across cities and towns. You’ll find out why if you watch it.

But it makes you pause for a moment, watching hundreds of office buildings and streets go dark section by section. You’ve probably seen the treatment in other movies before. All those millions of lights, going dark.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 10.42.26.png

Stick with me here. While I’d give the series five stars, there’s a more subtle point.

In real life, Constance Gay has just given an interview to the stylish Bizance as part of their series of portraits ‘Les Bizantines’. It’s a brief but thoughtful insight into life, music and lockdown during the current crisis.

But one of her observations really made me pause to think, as she was asked what daily idea or gesture could help take care of ‘tomorrow’.u42j.001


She said: “…last night, I was thinking very stupidly: an office on several floors is opposite my home, 24 hours a day (and during periods of confinement, let’s not forget that the offices are forced to close…) their lights are on! I can not understand that it is not sanctioned! At night when you are circulating in Paris, you see a number of offices, shops, companies that leave their light on, it’s scandalous!”

And she’s right. I have lost count the number of times I meander through a place and rage at the lights being left on under ‘normal’ circumstances. But now, when the majority will be empty, the ridiculousness of it all is even more absurd.

According to the World Economic Forum, immediately that the UK went into lockdown on Monday March 23, electricity use on a weekday dropped instantly between 5-10%, the lowest recorded since 1975. It’s dropped further since, but before records were really kept.

But that’s still fraction of what you might expect.

Carbon Intelligence – who research and monitor ways to reach a carbon zero economy – believe the average building is still using 80% of its energy, despite being left more of less redundant right now.

Some estimates say such waste could work out as around 3,000kg of CO2 at 80% capacity – something CI say is down to buildings being badly managed.

Speaking to journalist Madeleine Cuff for an interview with i, founder Cian Duggan said: “Unfortunately the vast majority of buildings are not managed well.

“That has become really obvious during the lockdown. The average building – despite being empty – is still using over 80 per cent of the energy it consumes when it is full. Which is mad.”

And it’s not just the UK.

According to Hatch Data CEO and co-founder Zach Robin, whose firm help monitor 400 square feet of commercial real estate in the US, one of the biggest ways to save energy across buildings not mothballed is simply to switch off the lights.

Robin anticipates that could save up to 20% of all building energy use, and told GreenTechMedia: “You can turn it off anywhere [that] it’s not emergency lighting” or would otherwise violate safety codes.”

For France, Gay’s observations about wasteful electricity use may be just the tip of the iceberg. A report from BusinessWire suggests COVID-19 may impact on how the country generates energy, and renewable energy, at all.

It says: “The energy sector has a significant effect of COVID-19 due to uncertainty in the generation and supply of the power and energy. AS per the French grid operator RTE the nuclear availability to remain 3.6 GW below the 2015 to 2019 average as well expected a national drop in nuclear demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Moreover, the COVID-19 outbreak would result in the delay in the development of the new wind farm projects that further affect the deployment of the wind farm in the country that further affect the energy sector of the country.”

That said, the French government had initiated some moves to support the solar energy sector. French environment minister Elisabeth Borne claiming its ambition in renewables remained firm.

It’s not just energy noting changes.

In January Scotland’s most polluted street, Hope Street, again raised concerns over the very high levels of toxic fumes being breathed into the lungs of the country’s biggest city, followed by Nicolson Street in the capital Edinburgh.

But since lockdown and the drop in vehicle use, there has been no such problems. Even today, the levels across the nation remain at a green ‘low’. Something planners must surely take into account as they plan for a return to movement.

For example Chris Stark, head of the UK’s climate change committee, now argues cash meant for roads should instead be diverted to better broadband to promote the digital and zero carbon economies once restrictions lift.

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Data: Air Quality in Scotland website

Glasgow was supposed to host the world’s largest climate change conference – Cop 26 – in November.

It has been postponed until next year because of Covid-19. After tragedy, surely a time for data and well-being led reflection on what we do next.

WIRED magazine speculates on what some of that might look like, including the possibility that tragically, nothing happens at all.

Meanwhile the lights stay on in empty buildings.

Maybe there is something to be done about that wherever you are. Send an email, write a letter, letting the offending offices owners know. Post images of how ridiculous it is on social media, give an interview to a fashion brand, write a blog.

Whatever it is, do something this Earth Day. Small things can achieve big impact.

In the meantime, Unite 42 seasons one and two can be found here. In the UK you can find season one on Netflix, but do yourself a favour and choose to watch in the original French (with English subtitles if you don’t speak it) rather than the dubbed version. TechRadar walk you through how in this article.

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