By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

One of the most interesting things I learned while crossing Canada earlier this year is that Canadians are excited about embracing change. People are sick of just hearing about problems like air pollution and global warming — they want to do something about them.

That's why I volunteered for an energy-conservation ad campaign for Powerwise, a partnership between local Ontario electrical utilities and the Government of Ontario. We've completed two television commercials and some print and outdoor advertising, all of which folks in Ontario can expect to see plenty of this summer.

For the local electrical utilities, their main goal is to reduce electrical consumption and avoid brownouts, where demand for power outstrips supply. California used similar public-awareness campaigns to successfully reduce its electricity consumption. I hope Powerwise has a similar effect in Ontario.

While avoiding brownouts is an obvious benefit, reducing our electricity consumption is also extremely important from a public and environmental health perspective. Generating electricity can have significant environmental and social costs, depending on the source of the power. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, for example, generate the majority of their power from coal, which has a large air pollution and global warming footprint.

Other provinces use combinations of hydroelectricity, oil, natural gas, diesel and other fuels to generate electricity. Ontario is blessed with a huge land base and obtains a quarter of its electricity from large-scale hydroelectric dams. Although dams don't burn fossil fuels, they do flood vast areas of land. And the decomposition of organic matter under that water can release substantial amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

More than half of Ontario's power actually comes from nuclear energy, which is generally perceived as having a smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels. But nuclear power plants are enormously complex and expensive, and they still suffer from waste storage and safety concerns. And although they don't release greenhouse gases when generating electricity, they certainly do "upstream," since mining the fuels, building the power plants and disposing of the waste are all tremendously energy intensive. Another 18 per cent of Ontario's power comes from fossil fuels — largely coal.

Low-impact renewable energy, like wind power, has only recently started making inroads into Ontario. These energy sources emit very little in the way of air pollutants or greenhouse gases. In theory, most new electricity demand in the province could be met through the use of low-impact renewables, but only if we get serious about energy conservation — hence, the ads. My hope is that Ontario doesn't have to build expensive and unreliable nuclear power plants, or polluting coal-fired generators. We can accomplish that, and put that money into renewable energy instead, but only if we develop a culture of energy conservation in Ontario.

That won't happen overnight. In fact, at first glance, the focus of the ads may seem like pretty small potatoes — changing lightbulbs and getting rid of old beer fridges, for example. But we have to start somewhere and, when millions of people make small changes, they really add up. That's why I, and my foundation, volunteered to help with the ads. We want to help people in Ontario, and ultimately the entire country, to start down a road to conservation.

Really, the ads are just a beginning. But the small steps they represent will start a new way of looking at things and a new way of thinking about electricity. We certainly can't stop at these small steps. But even small steps can take you a great distance if you make enough of them.

June 1, 2007