Energy and the Environment - a primer
Read below to learn how simple energy-saving measures impact broader issues and make sense for individuals and the community at large.
Climate change has become an international priority in recent years. It is widely accepted that greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which occur naturally, are being produced by human activities in excess of the planet’s capacity to absorb them. Most activities that require energy – like heating and cooling homes, using appliances and driving personal vehicles – emit GHGs because they burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas to produce energy.
Gases such as carbon dioxide (C02), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N20) in our atmosphere naturally act like a greenhouse to trap the sun’s heat and keep temperatures high enough to make the planet livable. Too many GHGs, however, contribute to the “enhanced greenhouse effect,” in which high concentrations of GHGs blanket the earth and trap too much of the sun’s heat, causing average temperatures to rise. This phenomenon is known as global warming or climate change.
While warmer temperatures may seem desirable in the cold Canadian climate, scientists warn of the far-reaching environmental, economic and social consequences associated with rising temperatures. These include severe weather, air pollution, smog, human health problems, premature deaths, droughts, water quality and supply issues, and flooding and erosion which cause damage to infrastructure.
Read more about Canada’s response to climate change.
In December 1997, representatives from over 160 countries gathered in Kyoto, Japan to discuss a plan of action for reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases and thus curbing climate change. The legally binding international agreement formed at this meeting, which specifies the options available for countries to meet reduction targets, is known as the Kyoto Protocol.
Given that Canada is the world’s third largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, proactively addressing emission levels is essential to ensure continued economic prosperity as well as environmental and human health. Canada signed the protocol in 1998, ratified it in 2002, and in February 2005 the treaty became international law. Under the agreement Canada has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by 2008 - 2012.
Given that greenhouse gas emissions in Canada have actually risen significantly - by about 17 % since 1990 - Canadians face a daunting task in attempting to reach the targets of the Kyoto Protocol. Personal action such as reducing home energy use is one critical component of reducing emissions and helping Canada to combat climate change.
Read more about Canada and the Kyoto Protocol.
Concerns over air quality have risen even more in light of the Ontario Medical Association’s 2005 finding that approximately 5,800 premature deaths each year in Ontario can be attributed to smog. Smog aggravates asthma and heart and respiratory disease; contributes to decreased workplace productivity; causes an increase in hospital visits; and damages outdoor paints and acrylics.
Like climate change, there are a number of activities contributing to poor air quality. Smog (from the words “smoke” and “fog”) is formed when fossil fuels are burned to power vehicles, homes and industries in Canada and the U.S. In the presence of sunlight, the air pollution from these activities - including particulate matter and ground level ozone - combine to create smog, the brownish-yellow cloud that hangs above urban centres on summer days.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment has developed an Air Quality Index (AQI) to rate outdoor air across Ontario each day. The AQI measures concentrations of six pollutants that are known to have adverse human health and environmental effects. As a general rule, the lower the AQI rating, the better the air quality is. If air quality receives a rating of less than 50 out of 120 it is deemed “poor”, and the Ministry issues a smog alert warning residents of the dangers associated with smog. The number of smog advisories issued by the Ministry has been growing steadily over the past few years, suggesting air quality is a significant public health and environmental issue that should be addressed at all levels of government and by individuals.
At REEP, we strive to educate residents about the link between personal lifestyle choices and poor air quality. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, and reducing personal use of oil-based paints, solvents and cleaners translates into fewer smog-causing pollutants being produced at home. The result is a lessened individual contribution to smog and an overall improvement in outdoor air quality.
In an effort to curb the negative effects associated with high electricity consumption (such as blackouts, lost productivity, and high concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions) the provincial government has recognized that promoting a “culture of conservation” with respect to energy use in the province is essential. The government is committed to phasing out Ontario’s four remaining coal-fired generating plants by 2007. Securing power supply for Ontario’s growing population is a priority and conservation is a key part of ensuring adequate supply.
The Ontario Energy Board issued a report to the Minister of Energy in 2004 outlining the steps that can move Ontario toward the goal of electricity conservation. The plan hinges on a conservation and demand management (CDM) campaign aimed at individuals and organizations alike, in which demand for electricity is reduced across the board through the use of energy-efficient products and reducing personal consumption levels. The province is also looking at when electricity is used, and finding ways to switch consumption from peak use times to other times. The goal is to manage demand to enable more efficient use of Ontario’s existing supply of electricity, and reduced reliance on external sources.