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Stark choices face us on energy use

How would you react if you were to wake up tomorrow morning to discover that hydro, gas and oil prices had all doubled or tripled overnight?

Most Canadians would immediately cut back sharply on their heating or air conditioning, park their cars if they could and take a bus or subway or commuter train to work, run out to buy the latest energy-efficient light bulbs, turn down the thermostat on their hot water tanks, start washing their clothes in cold water, install energy-conserving shower heads, and turn on the power-saving features on their computers.

In general, they would make every effort to stop wasting energy to moderate the steep increases in their energy bills. These are all simple energy conservation measures that most of us now cannot be bothered to use.

The next steps would be harder. Consumers might trade in their gas-guzzling monsters for smaller cars with much better gas mileage, buy the latest energy-efficient appliances, upgrade insulation and replace leaky windows. At the same time, there could be a mad dash by producers — and where feasible even by consumers — to invest in new technologies and alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal power.

But, because energy prices are not going to go through the roof tomorrow, very few of us are going to do any of these things. Human nature is such that we tend to wait for a crisis to happen before we react.

However, as the current Star series of articles on the looming energy crisis highlight, we do so at our peril.

The faster we start adjusting to the energy crisis that is sure to occur in the decades ahead, the greater will be our ability to cope when it finally hits. Many experts see a calamity already forming on the horizon because they do not believe there is any possibility that new oil and gas discoveries can significantly slow the pace at which energy-hungry nations, including Canada, are depleting the world's proven reserves.

The imperative for all Canadians to take action to reduce their consumption of oil and natural gas takes on a sense of urgency when you consider the many factors threatening future supplies. These include the threat of a major disruption emanating from instability in the energy-rich Middle East, as well as cutbacks in fossil fuel use dictated by the new Kyoto agreement on global warming.

But who can force urgent actions on a myopic public and a business sector that also seems to be overly complacent? The challenge clearly falls to governments to show vision and leadership, both in encouraging widespread conservation and in accelerating development of alternative fuels.

Ottawa and the provinces must go well beyond educating the public on these critical issues. They must work in concert to develop a carrot-and-stick approach that rewards conservation and spurs advances in alternative fuels, while punishing those who would continue to waste fossil fuels.

Just as Ottawa is proposing to dedicate a part of the current gasoline tax to transit and other urban needs, it could also raise funds to promote conservation and alternative fuel investments by increasing and extending gasoline taxes to all hydrocarbon fuels.

The public would, no doubt, protest loudly against any fuel taxes, claiming that they would seriously damage our standard of living. But all that claim really says is that people do not want to give up their SUVs, take public transit or make all the other small personal sacrifices that a dedication to real energy conservation requires.

Those would be legitimate arguments except for the fact that our failure to make modest sacrifices today ultimately will only invite chaos and social upheaval when the world reaches the point where there is simply not enough fossil fuel to satisfy all our needs.

Editorial Notes: Other other articles from the Toronto Star: We are finally running out of cheap gas — good Canada: Pinning hopes on the tar sand This article doesn't actually mention the energy peak, but it implies it, so I've put it in the 'peak' section - AF

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