The Mysteries of Time

Daylight saving: the eternal debate

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April 2024

Daylight saving: the eternal debate

The west coast of Europe is out of sync with solar time. One suggested solution is to reinstate four European time zones and scrap daylight saving. But would there be real health benefits?


hould we finally abolish daylight saving time? Twice a year, journalists, scientists and politicians ask whether we should continue to “spring forward, fall back”. Of the 4.6 million respondents to a European Union public consultation in 2018, 84% were in favour of scrapping the seasonal time change. In Switzerland, on the other hand, a 2020 citizens’ initiative to abolish daylight saving fell short of the required number of signatures (a similar initiative in 1984 also failed). While every EU member is free to choose its time zone, Brussels makes clear the importance of having a coordinated time, particularly between neighbouring states.

Energy consumption, road safety and outdoor activity are among the arguments put forward by proponents and opponents of daylight saving. Journalists report at length on the difficulties the body has in adjusting to the time change, citing greater risk of heart attack and an increase in the number of traffic collisions. These findings are, however, based on individual studies. Systematic reviews have not yet reached a scientific consensus that would confirm these effects. For example, a meta-analysis reported that the probability of a myocardial infarction increased by only 3%. Similarly, there are no definitive conclusions regarding the impact on energy consumption (lighting, heating and fuel), tourism or the economy in general.

Daylight saving: the eternal debate

Abolishing daylight saving in Europe would raise the question of which permanent time zone to adopt. The Barcelona Declaration on Time Policies, a framework that supports an end to the seasonal time change, proposes time zones that are more closely aligned with solar time. In practice, all member states would remain on their current winter time, with the exception of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain and Greece, which would set clocks back one hour in winter and two hours in summer. As a result, Europe would be divided into four time zones rather than the present three.

The current time zones date from the Second World War, when Germany imposed Berlin time on occupied countries, in some cases creating a major discrepancy between clock time and solar time: in Paris, the sun reaches its zenith not at noon but at 1pm in winter and 2pm in summer, setting at 10pm in June (great for long summer evenings) but not rising before 8.30am in December.

Scientific opinion is divided as to the effects this has on our health. Experts in sleep studies and chronobiology recommend that we respect our circadian rhythm, synchronised with natural light and darkness, with the sun at its zenith between 11.30am and 12.30pm. Our sleep patterns would, they say, benefit from shorter evenings in summer and an earlier dawn in winter – the proposal put forward by the Barcelona Declaration on Time Policies. If the measure were adopted, Parisians would see the sun rise at 3.45am in June. The daylight saving debate isn’t over yet!

Daylight saving: the eternal debate

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