What Is Canada Waiting For To Start Its Transition?

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In Canada, genuine changes in public attitudes toward the environment seem to be afoot. In January 2018, a poll conducted by Environics Research revealed that an overwhelming number of Canadians supported the growth and development of the country’s renewable energy sources. 93% of poll participants backed solar, 91% approved of hydroelectricity, and 86% wanted more wind projects. More than three times as many Canadians reported that the reduction of greenhouse gases should guide the ongoing development of natural resources, as opposed to the creation of energy jobs (34% to 10%). This represents a remarkable shift in a country whose entire history and economy has been deeply linked to resource extraction.

The public opinion captured in this poll hasn’t instigated a shift in government policy — at least not entirely so. While the Canadian federal government has released draft legislation for its national carbon-pricing scheme (which starts at $20 CAD per tonne in 2019 and grows quickly to $50 CAD per tonne in 2022), the government’s own projections suggest that it will only have achieved half the emissions needed to meet its 2020 target. In recent months, a number of European countries, regions and cities have announced aggressive new policies designed to generate their own German-style Energiewende, and to do so in short order. Canada, by contrast, has committed itself to continued fossil fuel extraction, through the approval of projects such as $7.4 billion CAD Trans Mountain pipeline designed to move oil from the Athabasca Tar Sands to the Pacific coast, and the Keystone XL project, green-lighted by the Trump Administration as one of its first acts of state.

Can one use the income from fossil fuels to help fund a transition away from a fossil fuel economy?

The logic can’t help but strike one as bizarre: Canada will get around to meeting its emissions targets, but only by first putting huge additional amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. To most, the actions of the government are cynical and self-interested — a way of keeping energy-rich provinces (such as Alberta) happy while paying lip service to Canada’s international commitments. It’s not the best way to deal with the environment. And it’s clearly out of step with what most Canadians want.

The unofficial Canadian policy of both/and — both extractive industries and greenhouse gas reduction —  combined with the retreat of the US federal government on almost anything having to do with the environment —  impedes efforts to address and prepare the nation to cope with the consequences of global warming.

What might Canada do instead?

Now is the time for Canada to get serious about developing a national energy transition policy. Even though federal and provincial governments have acknowledged the need for a transition (followed by meek program and policy gestures), no such energy transition policy exists. Such a policy would directly and concretely speak to the need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy. It would outline programs and interventions that would make this happen sooner rather than later. And it would make clear that this transition can’t be left to the energy market or be shaped by the price for energy. Carbon pricing does very little, in the end, to transform a country’s energy landscape, nor does it properly capture the carbon liabilities that come with fossil fuel extraction. The recent report by David Janzen and Ian Hussey ‘What the Paris Agreement Means for Alberta’s Oil Sands Majors’ demonstrates that the carbon liabilities of Canada’s five biggest companies in the oil sands far outweigh their assets and market capitalization.

Included in an energy transition policy would be a commitment to a just transition policy attuned to the distinct impacts that such a transformation would have on different parts of Canada, and also include measures to ensure that the communities currently dependent on fossil fuels would in the future be sustainable without them. A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives outlines a range of mechanisms that government could undertake to make certain that, as much as possible, everyone in the country might benefit from energy transition. This includes enhanced social security programs for workers in areas currently dependent on fossil fuel extraction (primarily, though not only, in Alberta) and investment in training programs that would allow workers to make the shift to the jobs needed in a renewable energy economy. Far from being a transition driven from the top down, energy workers themselves have taken the initiative in outlining a wide range of possible ways that they and their communities might make the shift away from fossil fuels toward a more sustainable future. The non-profit group Iron & Earth, for example, has asked the government of Alberta to add solar panels to provincial buildings and to use the energy transition of these buildings as a way of retraining oil workers for green and clean work in the 21st economy.

Unfortunately, these bottom-up worker initiatives face a federal government (and many Canadian provincial governments) that seems to believe that fossil fuels will be the primary source of jobs for the near future. In a country built up around extraction, protecting the environment is imagined as coming at the expense of jobs; on the flip side, Canadians seem to think that energy jobs can’t but come at a cost to the environment. Yet this is a false dichotomy, which reflects the desire of both industry and government to keep things just the way they are instead of innovating transition policies that protect the environment and produce good jobs.

Instead of taking on the challenge and opportunity of developing new transition policies capable of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and creating jobs for a economy undergoing transformation, governments play worried citizens off of one another (in the hopes of keeping votes at the ballot box), while fossil fuel companies generate profits in a declining yet still destructive industry. Like citizens of countries around the world, Canadians are ready to take on the work of the environment and do jobs that work for the environment. They just need some help from their governments; they need an energy transition plan, one that focuses on them and not on markets and profit.

By Imre Szeman, University of Waterloo

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