The Demand for Sustainability

“Sustainability means doing things better – not doing without. Right now, Canadians consume too much, and most of it is wasted. Less than ten percent of the energy we generate is actually used in the purpose for which it was intended. Most of it goes up in smoke. Our economy is fully one-third less energy efficient than the United States and only half as efficient as most European countries.”

Originally published as a foreword to Sustainability within a Generation: A new vision for Canada by Dr. David Suzuki.

Conservation and energy efficiency are once again gaining prominence in the media and the marketplace. The catalysts include higher and more volatile energy prices, constraints on new supply, and large infrastructure bottlenecks such as those that caused electricity blackouts in California in 2001, and in Ontario and the U.S. Northeast in the summer of 2003. [1b]

North America is one of the world’s largest energy producing – and consuming – regions, but has limited reserves of conventional crude oil and natural gas, and is not able to meet its needs without imports. Renewable sources account for only 17% of Canada’s primary energy supply, with the majority of renewable energy mix contributed by hydroelectricity (11%), followed by biomass. [1b] Wind energy is expected to grow substantially, having greatly declined in cost over the past few decades. Renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and marine will take hold gradually, barring a significant technological breakthrough, because the existing stock of capital dedicated to providing and using energy is like a huge ship on a calm sea – it takes time and effort to turn it around. In addition, it is important to note that wind and geothermal energy generation is more location-dependent than biomass.

All of this translates into an increasing economic and societal need to be more efficient with the energy we currently have available. New sources to meet rising consumption will take time to develop and mature.  Rising energy prices are bringing this changing reality home to consumers in an emphatic and increasingly urgent manner.

Buildings represent approximately 40 percent of primary energy use globally. Establishing strong energy efficient building practices and developing means towards achieving zero net energy use for residential and commercial buildings is key to reducing future costs and risks. [1c, 1f] In North America in 2003, the residential sector accounted for over 21% of energy consumed. Of this, space heating accounted for 46%, lighting & appliances 23%, water heating 17%, air conditioning 8%, and refrigeration 5% of use. [1f, 1b] By implementing existing technologies to stabilize heating/cooling requirements alone, green construction practices could greatly reduce what is currently 54% of energy expenditure in residential buildings.

The housing industry is a major contributor to the problems we see arising in the global ecosystem. The trail from clearcut to sawmill to building site is easy to follow. Other major modern building components depend on destructive mining: gypsum for plasterboard (drywall); iron for hardware, rebar, and roofing; lime and other minerals for cement. Every material used in a typical modern building is the product of energy-intensive processing. The mills that saw lumber, the factories that make plywood and chipboard, the foundries that make steel, the plants that turn natural minerals into cement by subjecting them to enormous heat – all consume vast quantities of power. Manufacturing processes also release toxic effluent into the water and hazardous chemicals into the air. The manufacture of Portland cement, for example, is responsible for as much as eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And after manufacture, modern construction requires these materials be transported to job sites, usually hundreds of miles away. [1d]

In contrast, straw and other materials favoured by natural builders are biological by-products that would otherwise create a disposal problem. Until recently, nearly all the straw produced in California was burned in the fields – enough to build tens of thousands of family homes. But clean-air legislation has outlawed the practice. Faced with the problem of what to do with all the straw they can no longer burn, California rice growers have thrown their political clout behind legitimizing straw bale building, with the result that the state of California has adopted straw bale building guidelines. [1d]