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Let's talk, not bicker, about Canada's energy future

A clean energy transition requires Canadians to find consensus and act.

By Jane McDonald on July 6, 2018
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Canada's Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr, IISD Managing Director Jane McDonald, Enbridge Inc. Chief Sustainability Officer Linda Coady at the launch of the Generation Energy Council report.

(This op-ed first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 30, 2018)

Last fall, at the request of federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, I joined a diverse council of experts to discuss ways Canada can transition to a low-carbon energy system in the next 20 years. Among us were executives from the oil and gas sector, renewable energy companies, an energy storage entrepreneur, heads of environmental groups, efficiency experts and First Nations leaders.

Our mandate was clear: come up with a vision of how Canadians will turn on their lights, heat their homes and get to work a generation from now if we make changes that allow us to meet our Paris emissions targets.

There were things we didn’t agree on. Canada’s a big country with very different regional energy assets and people brought different priorities to the table. What was surprising was just how much consensus there was.

Everyone agreed we need to move much more aggressively on efficiency measures. We call on governments to work together to rapidly implement more efficient building codes. Retrofitting our homes and offices creates jobs. And saving energy also means saving money for Canadians; in Nova Scotia, the country’s first efficiency utility saves its citizens $110 million every year.

We agreed Canada should use clean electricity to our advantage. More than 80 per cent of our grid is already powered by low-carbon sources. Expanding the activities that tap our grid will reduce emissions. We could start by electrifying our transit fleets. The company supplying more than 7,000 heavy-duty transit buses powered by electric motors and battery propulsion across Canada and the U.S. is headquartered here in Winnipeg.

Council came together around the idea that renewable fuels need to be a bigger piece of the puzzle. As a country, we sit on immense feedstocks of agricultural, forestry and landfill waste materials that could create a bio-economy that creates jobs and boosts economic competitiveness. Edmonton has already started, building the world’s first commercial-scale facility that turns household garbage into biofuels and renewable chemicals.

Council shared the view that new opportunities are emerging, and needed, for Indigenous Peoples to provide leadership on energy strategy and energy development. Right now, there are 31 Indigenous-owned energy projects — or 50-50 partnerships between renewable energy companies and First Nations — underway across Canada.

Across all topics, we agreed governments should create conditions to allow entrepreneurs to build low-carbon solutions. A great example hit the news this month when B.C.-based Carbon Engineering — a firm backed largely by Bill Gates and Canadian oilsands mogul Murray Edwards — announced a breakthrough with technology that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air and produce a clean-burning fuel.

Regarding its success so far, the company’s CEO said: "We would not be in business if carbon pricing did not exist." And guess what the company is looking for as it licenses its technology? Clean fuel standards that will provide incentives for markets to purchase those fuels.

It is going to be complicated to shift our energy infrastructure. Governments will need to align efforts and ensure funding and fiscal incentives no longer support the status quo, but are deployed to attract capital and investment into energy solutions that improve Canada’s carbon profile. Our oil and gas sector will need to rapidly innovate to stay competitive in global markets seeking more affordable and least polluting supplies.

But the cost of failing to engage in a serious energy transition isn’t just that Canadians won’t compete in new markets. It’s that we contribute to a global failure to curb the real costs on the horizon, like repairing and replacing infrastructure increasingly threatened by more severe weather events and warmer temperatures.

The 2011 Manitoba flood displaced about 7,000 people; more than seven years later, 1,700 evacuees from several Manitoba First Nations still wait to go home. The overall cost for flood preparation, flood fighting, repairs to infrastructure and disaster payments that year was $1.2 billion. That same year, Canada’s National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy published a report estimating the economic impact of climate change for our country at between $21 billion and $43 billion per year by 2050.

So, let’s not get stalled in simplified, divisive narratives about climate change; as a country, we can’t afford it. Canadians need to recommit to a civil and serious conversation about an energy transition. That won’t happen if we retreat behind political calculations or near-term stock prices, or if we tune out as consumers. More is needed of each of us as citizens.

Let’s make an effort to come out of our corners and keep talking. Our energy future is about much more than a pipeline — if we make it so.

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