London's early festive lights turn greens into grinches

All that extra electricity is going to bring heat – not peace – on earth, say British environmentalists. Bah humbug, say the retailers.

Happy Christmas everyone! I know, I know, it's a bit early, and you Americans haven't even had Thanksgiving yet.

And yes, we're barely done with Halloween and there's still more than 40 shopping days to go, given that every day is a shopping day nowadays.

But stroll down Oxford Street in London's West End and you could be forgiven for thinking it's already here.

The twinkling snowscapes on the storefronts, the gift-wrapped window displays, the artificial Christmas trees, and shimmering curtains of neon as far as the eye can see decorate the city's retail heartland.

Christmas in November is not to everyone's taste, of course, but this year it's not just the scrooges and humbugs who are complaining. Environmentalists are warning that the premature illumination of festive lights in London is irresponsible, given the current preoccupation with global warming.

It's a new Christmas message: Peace on earth, goodwill toward men – and please keep the greenhouse gases to a minimum.

Calculations made by London legislators from the Liberal Democrat party have established that powering the lights 24/7 for 59 days – keeping the shopping district festive until Jan. 6 – will send 80 tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

"The sooner these lights are switched on, the more energy they consume," says Mike Tuffrey, a member of London's assembly and a spokesman on the environment for the Liberal Democrats.

He acknowledges that retailers have taken steps to move to low-energy lighting, but adds that the power should have been sourced from renewable suppliers.

"If this is not possible, we are saying that the retailers should offset the carbon produced by planting 400 trees," Mr. Tuffrey adds.

The Energy Savings Trust, a government-funded advocate of cleaner energy, adds that retailers might consider turning the lights off for a few hours in the dead of night, when no one's around. It notes that almost half the carbon dioxide emitted comes from things we do every day, such as leaving lights on and televisions on standby.

"So it's important that Oxford Street sets a good example," says spokeswoman Abi Gibson, adding that consumers should also be on the lookout for low-energy lighting for their Christmas trees, and should take care to turn off new Christmas gadgets and televisions when not in use.

Environmentalists stress that they don't want to "cancel Christmas," but point out that the lights were switched on just days after the publication of one of the most sobering reports yet on global warming.

The aptly named Stern report, drawn up by former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern, warned that without serious endeavors now to cut carbon emissions, climate change could decimate world economic growth in the next couple of generations.

Environmentalists also note that Christmas seems to be coming earlier and earlier. The Oxford Street lights are normally illuminated in the third or fourth week of November. This year the switch was flipped on Nov. 9.

Bah humbug! say the retailers.

"Christmas has always started in November on Oxford Street," says Jace Tyrrell of the New West End Company, an alliance of big central London retailers. "[The lights] are a few days earlier this year. But the lights are the greenest they've ever been. We are the greenest in the UK in terms of our carbon footprint."

And he added that, yes, next year, the company would take steps to offset its emissions by planting trees.

But don't expect Christmas to revert to a more Christian timetable.

"The lights are a major draw and people come from all over to see them," Mr. Tyrrell says, adding that 40 million shoppers are expected on Oxford Street during the festive season. Not all of them are feeling twinkly and festive just yet, however.

"It's definitely too early," says Jason Dodd, who is in London for the day from his home on the English Channel island of Jersey. "It's purely a commercial thing for retailers to sell more products to the public.

"It's wasteful for sure. They are even telling us that phone chargers left on at home can burn energy, so imagine what this lot is doing."

Marjorie Prestage, another shopper, agrees. "I think it's very early. It spoils it for the children. By the time Christmas comes they've had it for weeks and have seen everything."

She remembers her parents bringing her to Oxford Street on Christmas Eve in the 1950s. "Then, you saw the lights for the first time. It was special. It has become too commercial. It's just a way for retailers to draw attention to the place."

But she's not sure that 80 tons of carbon – roughly the equivalent to the lifetime emissions of two cars that average 30 miles per gallon – will make or break the climate change debate.

"I'm not too sure it will make a difference to global warming. The rest of the world is so large that I'm not sure our tiny little island will make a difference."

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