Japan’s crisis is another reason to rethink energy use

The massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan are horrendous and heart-wrenching, and our thoughts are with the people of that country having to cope with the aftermath and the terrible losses they have suffered.

To make matters worse, the terrifying natural disaster has sparked a human-caused crisis, as radiation leaks from crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, sparking fears of a meltdown.

Although our immediate concern is for the people of Japan, we must also draw lessons from this misfortune.

First, we can learn from the Japanese about being prepared. As horrific as the earthquake and its aftermath were, the situation could have been far worse if the Japanese people took the same complacent approach to disaster planning that many Canadians follow.

But it’s also another indicator that we have to take a close look at our energy systems.

Last year, the world watched another energy-related calamity unfold, as oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.

Both the nuclear crisis in Japan and the oil spill in the Gulf focused our attention on the things that can go wrong in our insatiable pursuit of cheap energy. But the issues around our energy use are far more serious and persistent. They include pollution, political instability, rising costs, and climate change. Once again, our energy appetite has provoked a global nightmare.

We can sink deeper into crisis, or we can use it as an opportunity to look at ways to achieve a sustainable energy future.

Fossil and nuclear fuels are finite and therefore cannot be truly sustainable. They will run out, and we’re already seeing one of the outcomes of depleting supplies—skyrocketing prices.

Another consequence is that we will have to rely increasingly on oil from difficult sources (environmentally and politically) like deeper water, the tar sands, the Arctic and volatile political jurisdictions. Using fossil and nuclear fuels also creates enormous problems now and into the future as greenhouse gases and radioactive and long-lived wastes accumulate.

In addition, fossil and nuclear fuels are not equitably distributed throughout the world.

Oil deposits, for example, are often found in geopolitically unstable areas. And nuclear energy has proven to be incredibly expensive and time-consuming to get into production.

If the money proposed to refurbish aging facilities and build new ones were put toward renewable energy—such as wind, solar and geothermal energy creation options—the impact would be immediate, to get us moving toward a truly sustainable energy future.

All our energy options ave consequences and trade-offs. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels endangers our planet, nuclear disasters and nuclear waste are potentially significant threats to our health and ecosystems, and even renewable sources have impacts.

It’s time we took a close look at our energy use and sources in order to find better ways of providing for our needs. We can all start doing our part by using less.

A number of organizations in Canada are working to develop a national energy strategy, something that is surprisingly lacking in a developed country like ours.

For its part, the David Suzuki Foundation has joined with the Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Trottier Family Foundation to consider Canada’s energy options as part of the Trottier Energy Futures Project.

We’re looking at various questions: How is our energy use leading to overinvestment in potentially dangerous energy sources and technologies? How can we factor in energy sources with fewer environmental impacts?

We all hope the situation in Japan doesn’t become more serious than it already is, but with that hope we must come to the realization that we can, and must, find ways to reduce the risks that come with our energy use and technologies.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation communications and editorial specialist Ian Hanington.