The word sustainability gets bandied about a lot, but what does it mean? It means living within the productive capacity of the biosphere. We survive because our most fundamental needs — clean water, fresh air, soil, energy from the sun (through photosynthesis), and resources like trees, fish, and so on — can be replenished by nature as long as we don't exceed its ability to replace them. Nonrenewable resources like metals must be used carefully and recycled because, no matter how plentiful they are, they will be depleted.
The current economic difficulties, a deepening ecological crisis, and energy problems provide an opportunity to radically reassess our current status and direction. Energy especially provides a chance to rethink our course. Fossil fuels are nonrenewable, which means that once we use them they're gone and won't be replenished within humankind's existence. The major sources of gas and oil are in politically volatile areas like Russia, Africa, and the Middle East. And the rate at which we are burning fossil fuels exceeds the biosphere's capacity to reabsorb the carbon. Nuclear fuels are also nonrenewable, and their use in nuclear power plants generates radioactive wastes that will have to be stored for millennia. The global threat of terrorism adds to the dangers of this energy source.
Energy sustainability demands that we shift from dependence on nonrenewables to renewables like solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, wave, and biomass. Energy efficiency and conservation will be important parts of that shift. It's an inescapable fact. And so, will we continue to deplete the nonrenewables and face the disastrous consequences of climate change and radioactive waste, or will we embark on a crash program to get onto renewables? The choice seems clear.
It's no surprise that many of the advances in clean energy — technological and economic — have come from areas that don't have many fossil-fuel deposits, and that some of the roadblocks have been from areas with large fossil-fuel reserves. Canada is among the latter. We have large supplies of uranium, coal, and oil (albeit the dirtiest oil) in our tar sands.
Given that our governments are elected for four- or five-year terms, it's almost forgivable that those in power often focus on what we already have over what we could be developing. But "almost" doesn't mean it is forgivable. These people are elected to represent our interests, and it certainly isn't in our interests to continue to rely on diminishing supplies of polluting fossil fuels for energy or for economic growth.
It would be one thing if the politicians continued to support the fossil-fuel industry while seriously considering ways to make the transition to clean energy. But some of our elected officials seem determined to keep on sucking or digging every bit of oil, coal, and uranium out of the ground until it runs out or until humans are decimated by the consequences of climate change or nuclear contamination — whichever comes first.
But not all of our representatives are blind to the possibilities. While our federal government puts so little stock in renewable energy that it was conspicuous by its absence at the launch of the International Renewable Energy Agency in Bonn, Germany, in January, the Ontario government is getting behind a Green Energy Act proposed by the David Suzuki Foundation and a number of other organizations.
The stated vision behind Green Energy Act proposed by these organizations is "To make Ontario a global leader in the development of renewable energy, clean distributed energy and conservation, while creating thousands of jobs, economic prosperity and energy security, and protecting the climate."
In announcing that his government will introduce a Green Energy Act later in February, Premier Dalton McGuinty promised to modernize the province's energy transmission grid to accommodate renewable energy sources and to expand the use of solar, wind, hydro, biomass, and biogas. In the process, according to Premier McGuinty, the move would help generate investment and create more than 50,000 jobs over the next three years.
Governments such as Germany's already have a considerable head start when it comes to renewable energy, and even the U.S. is becoming a world leader in clean-energy technology. It would be great if this latest move by the Ontario government encouraged other Canadian politicians to get in on the act — not just for the sake of clean air, land, and water, but for the sake of keeping our economy strong as well.