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The Canadian Crucible

Jonathan Shopley | 11 March 2016 |

The Globe Leadership Summit for Sustainable Business in Vancouver gave Jonathan Shopley an opportunity to tap into Canada’s conundrum -- reconciling the Alberta tar sands with a new commitment to pricing carbon. Read more...

The Canadian Crucible

Sizing up Canada

Canada’s 36 million citizens live in the world’s 2nd largest country and 11th largest economy – a land largely of tundra, ruggedly beautiful mountains, richly endowed with natural resources dominated by forests and minerals including uranium, gold and iron ore. It is ranked 3rd largest in deposits of oil and gas after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia; and it has the somewhat infamous Athabasca tar sands, or Alberta oil sands -- the largest known deposit of bitumen.

In a country without much arable land, mining and natural resources are the life-blood of the country. The federal government coordinates national policy across a factious collection of 10 provinces and three territories that stretch from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from the northern USA right into the Artic region. It’s an unusual arrangement of constitutional power that is split so that neither the federal nor provincial level is superior to the other.

Canada’s energy conundrum

Across Canada the energy mix is roughly 10% nuclear, 10% renewables (dominated by hydro) and 80% oil, gas and coal. The provinces have significant autonomy in terms of energy and therefore, to a large extent, climate change policy. In 1980, when a National Energy Program was introduced, the country was almost torn apart, deeply dividing the provinces along an East–West axis. Since then no federal government has been able to implement an intergovernmental, long-term, cohesive energy plan.

And along the way, Canada has had a difficult relationship with the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol. A Liberal government signed up to the international agreement in 2002, but Stephen Harper’s Conservative government withdrew Canada in 2011. It’s no understatement to say that decarbonising the Canadian economy is politically hazardous, and economically challenging.

The new Canadian politics of climate change

In a remarkable and surprising change of fortunes, Canada’s Liberal Party won a landslide election victory in late 2015, displacing Stephen Harper. The charismatic Justin Trudeau was sworn in as Prime Minister in November and has wasted little time in bringing Canada back in from the climate cold. In his opening address to the The Globe Leadership Summit for Sustainable Business in Vancouver, he talked of his plans to decarbonise Canada’s energy sector by using rather than abandoning its fossil reserves to fund a slow and steady clean-energy transition that maintains security of supply, jobs and economic prosperity.

Two days after opening Globe, Trudeau met Provincial & Territorial leaders to hammer out the Vancouver Declaration on clean growth and climate change. It contains a comprehensive suite of measures to put Canada on a low carbon trajectory. Light on detail, the Declaration creates political space to manoeuvre and reassure Canadians that their jobs and abundant resources will not be sacrificed in the delivery of greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Carbon pricing is central to the plans, which will draw on and leverage Canadian provincial initiatives that span a diverse set of approaches, including:

• British Columbia’s revenue-neutral carbon tax

• Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund, and carbon offset provisions for specified emitters

• Ontario’s Cap & Trade program scheduled for launch in 2017

• Quebec’s similar Cap & Trade program with links to the Californian Cap & Trade infrastructure -- a unique exploration of how disparate sub-national initiatives can partner to deliver scale and impact.

In addition, the Declaration pays attention to curtailing old, carbon intensive technologies, spurring new clean forms of energy, and carrying the hearts and minds of citizens by finding a way this can be done while keeping and growing jobs and keeping costs of energy down.

The Bob Marley moment

Globe also hosts an Innovation Expo show-casing green innovation. The two stand-out exhibitors which spoke most eloquently to the innovation and jobs conundrum were General Fusion’s huge piece of nuclear fusion kit indicating that the holy grail of the low cost, clean and abundant energy may be getting a little closer; and the Iron + Earth booth tucked away at the back of the hall.

Iron + Earth is an NGO established by oil sands workers, and in their own words: “We created this organization during the spring of 2015 when oil prices started to fall. We were losing work, and conversations about needing to diversify our energy grid were dominating our lunch conversations on the job site. This moment acted as a catalyst for us to realize our shared vision for a sustainable energy future for Canada - one that would ensure the health and equity of workers, our families, communities, economy, and the environment. We founded Iron + Earth as a platform to engage in renewable energy development issues, and to empower us to advocate for an energy future we can be proud of creating. Our membership has since grown to include workers from a variety of industrial trades, including boilermakers, electricians, pipe fitters, ironworkers, and labourers.”

In Globe’s closing plenary, Yvo de Boer, Christiana Figueres’s predecessor as Secretary General of the UNFCCC, perfectly captured the tension and the opportunity in Canada’s new engagement on climate, by quoting this line from a Bob Marley song:

“In this great future, you can't forget your past.”