For many of us in British Columbia, our way of life depends on our access to inexpensive energy sources. Inexpensive fossil fuels allow produce grown in Chile to be transported to Canada for our winter consumption. Inexpensive electricity allows us to plug in a growing array of electronic devices. From our building materials to our heat sources, our transportation to our waste disposal, every aspect of our human ecology has a certain amount of “embodied energy.”
Embodied energy is the amount of energy consumed in the production and transportation of a good. As an example, imagine two apples. By the time it arrives in the Kootenays, an apple grown in Australia has much greater embodied energy than an apple grown in Robson due to all the petroleum used to transport it here. But transportation isn’t the only way for energy to be embodied in a good. Energy-intensive processes are necessary for the production of plastics, concrete, electronics, etc. Human effort is energy, too, but people and other animals are relatively efficient at converting food energy (calories) into work.
There’s another important connection between energy and our environment: climate change. In most of Canada, and most of the world, energy comes primarily from fossil fuel in the form of coal or natural gas. When coal is burned to produce electricity, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Natural gas (methane) also contributes to climate change. In fact, methane is 27 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere. This means that even though burning creates less carbon dioxide, even a small amount of methane leakage (1-2%) will contribute just as much to climate change as coal does. This means that for most of us, the only solution to climate change is to reduce our energy use.
In British Columbia, most of our electricity comes from hydroelectric power—that is, dams. Although hydro power is renewable, dam construction is very energy intensive due to the huge amount of concrete required. According to the International Energy Agency, production of one tonne of concrete results in .65-.92 tonnes of carbon dioxide. New technologies are reducing the impact of concrete, but the concrete industry accounts for about 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, the construction of dams has had far-reaching effects on our society, economy, and environment through habitat destruction and flooding. This means that the hydro power we consume comes at a price we don’t see on our utility bill.
The energy-intensive lifestyle common to families in British Columbia has impacts on our environment in the form of climate change and habitat loss due to reservoirs and dams. Our high rate consumption of non-renewable energy sources has another important effect: we’re using up the cheap and easy energy. (This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “peak energy,” since the growth of oil production has peaked, while the growth in demand is still increasing.)
As we use up the cheap and easy energy, the energy that remains is more expensive and difficult to access. Whether it’s located in the oil sands of Alberta, the shale of Northern BC, or the deep ocean of the Arctic, Canada’s remaining fuel resources require increasingly energy intensive and environmentally hazardous techniques to extract them. That means that the price of energy will increase in both economic and environmental terms. Higher priced energy means higher prices for most of the items we buy, including gasoline.
The ripple effects from higher prices could affect our community very deeply, depending on how quickly prices change. Transportation, food, and heating are the aspects of our human ecology that are most energy intensive and therefore sensitive to price increases. How would your life change if your transportation costs, home heating costs, and food costs were to increase by another 50%? What if they doubled?
The first thing you can do is to reduce your household energy consumption. This not only reduces the energy effects on climate change, but if we all reduce our energy use, we can save some energy resources for later, when we might really need them. It’s also good practice to get used to a low energy lifestyle through gradual voluntary choices than as a result of an economic dilemma.
Some ideas to reduce your energy consumption are:
- Buy your produce at a local farmer’s market from a local grower.
- Share a ride on the Kootenay Ride share instead of travelling alone
- Take the bus, ride a bike, or walk to your destination. The annual commuter challenge is a great way to practice.
- Improve the energy efficiency of your home. Incentives and rebates are available through provincial and municipal programs.
- Participate in the Transition Towns movement
- Grow your own food
- Compost: Anaerobic decomposition of organic waste in landfills creates methane, and up to 40% of our waste is organic material.
- Reduce discretionary purchases- save money and simplify your life with fewer consumer goods.
- Maintain your vehicle and keep your tires properly inflated.
Another important step is to build energy-resilient communities through planning and community action.
- Participate in the EcoSociety Resiliency Network.
- Get involved in your community’s Official Community Plan to advocate for more bicycle, pedestrian, and bus routes
- Shovel your sidewalk to make it easier for your neighbours to walk.
- Urge your municipality or regional district to become an idle-free zone.
- Build a community greenhouse, garden, or tool lending library
- Get to know your neighbours and share ideas, tools, and excess produce.
- Stand up against exploitation of high-cost and high-impact energy resources like the Oil Sands, the damming of the Peace River, and shale gas.