Shoreline of the Shell Albian Oil Sands tailings pond, near Fort McKay. © Ian Wi Shoreline of the Shell Albian Oil Sands tailings pond, near Fort McKay. © Ian Willms \ ianwillms.com

To celebrate the new year, many people have made resolutions – which ultimately may or may not be successful. The nations of the world made their own resolution shortly before the holidays, and what we can expect isn’t entirely clear. What is clear is that climate change is accelerating, and Canada will need to move to a low-carbon economy in the near future.

The latest round of Conference of Parties (COP 18) climate change negotiations in Doha, Qatar, wrapped up in mid-December. Countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol way back in 1997 (except Canada, which dropped out in 2012 and is still the only country to do so) agreed to modest reduction targets for 2020. However the main outcome of the Doha conference was getting everyone on more or less the same page. The next international climate conference isn’t scheduled until 2015, which is not encouraging given the urgent need to avoid the impacts of an ever-likely 2°C global temperature increase.

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy would help limit global warming and generate significant economic benefits. With this in mind it is worth exploring how Canada is progressing towards a low-carbon future. In its final report before dissolution later this year, the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE) released key policy recommendations and argued that Canada has much to gain from going low-carbon.

In Framing the Future: Embracing the Low-Carbon Economy the NRTEE provides a framework for moving forward to 2050, advising that both the federal and provincial governments must stimulate innovation, mobilise investment in low-carbon infrastructure and foster skills and talent development. This requires “policy certainty on climate, energy, and innovation including economy-wide, long-term pricing of carbon.” The NRTEE sees value and prosperity for Canada as it becomes a global player in low-carbon markets, while also minimising economic risks from penalties for carbon-intensive activities once carbon pricing comes into effect.

The literature on low-carbon is exciting and far-reaching; for example, Alex Steffan recently published a free digital e-book Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet. Canada’s ever-struggling municipalities (see my past blog post on this topic) could certainly benefit from some of Steffan’s unique approaches.

Unfortunately, the federal government is completely uninterested in the NRTEE’s policy recommendations and has cut funding as it moves ahead with oil sands development and pipelines. A new environment-economy research network supported by the University of Ottawa and the University of Calgary (with funding from Environment Canada) was launched in July and will hopefully fill the gap in environmental policy left by the NRTEE. Meanwhile, Sustainable Prosperity, an Ottawa-based think tank, released Towards a Green Economy for Canada in 2012 and suggests that the global economic crisis has set off paradigm shifts in regards to traditional economic thinking. This report complements the NRTEE and provides a solid basis for moving forward.

Canada’s biggest source of anthropogenic carbon continues to be the development of the oil sands. The Canada West Foundation published a report after holding a series of roundtable sessions with stakeholders in cities across western Canada which provides key insight into this dilemma. Stakeholders emphasised the need to strike a balance between energy development and low-carbon and noted that there is ‘room for improvement.’

They also noted that a national vision linking energy, environmental and economic priorities is needed and that the language and scope of the low-carbon conversation needs to change. Past dialogue has focussed on missed reduction targets, the negative short-term economic impacts of carbon pricing, and changes to individual lifestyles.

The conservation is stuck at that stage at the federal level; in September the Conservatives condemned the NDP for supposedly supporting a carbon tax (which they don’t). The negative attacks (MP John Williamson: “hard-working Canadians across the country will suffer if the NDP bring forward a job-killing carbon tax that will increase the price on everything!”) make it difficult to frame the issue in a positive light and get the Canadian economy moving towards low-carbon – just when it is most vital. A 2012 survey by Environment Canada found that many Canadians are against a carbon tax, which is unsurprising given the poor treatment carbon taxes have received in national discourse.

A low-carbon economy would be an economic action plan that Canadians everywhere could support, because it would be a valuable investment for long-term economic and environmental prosperity. Unfortunately progress is slow and in many areas of the economy, Canada is falling behind.

I asked Bernard Fleet, Adjunct Professor at Ryerson University and managing partner of Fleet Technology Partners, about the problems facing this transition and how Canadians can get involved.

Dan Beare: What is needed to get Canada on the low-carbon path? What is missing from our national discourse, and how can we move policy forward?

Bernard Fleet: Moving the policy debate forward to a global policy accord is extremely problematic – the recent Doha meeting was very much the business as usual stalemate, with developing nations pushing the idea of Climate Debt reparations via the Green Fund and the West, especially the US and Canada, rejecting all offers. Domestically it is a very difficult situation: Stephen Harper’s goal is for Canada to become an oil superpower, and all of the focus at the Federal level is on tar sands development and pipelines. Our society’s model is closer to that of Saudi Arabia! 

DB: What is the role of fuel prices?

BF: As we know from the US, fossil fuel prices are a key factor for changing public attitudes. Once oil prices get past $100/barrel then renewables and solutions such as electric cars become far more economically viable. The downside for Canadians is that above the $100 mark, tar sands fuels become competitive. Of course, increased shale gas and fracking could totally change this scenario and upend the Peak Oil debate. We will have to wait and see.

DB: What recommendations can you make? Where are the key areas we need to take action?

BF: Clearly we need a renewable energy strategy. This is entirely feasible as Professor Mark Jacobson at Stanford University has proposed using a wind, water and sun (WWS) scenario for solving the global energy demand. As he points out, all of these technologies are available and proven. The oil and gas establishment pushes the idea that renewables are too “expensive,” while conveniently overlooking the fact that the oil and gas industry has been subsidised for billions of dollars over the past 50 years while contributing to environmental degradation, increasing health costs and climate change.

DB: What do you see happening that looks like a positive development?

BF: On the positive side, at the local grassroots level it seems like the public and institutions are slowly getting the message. However, the disinformation campaign put out by government lobbyists, [the so-called] “Merchants of Doubt,” is very powerful and needs a strong opposition. One positive is that the large corporations, the Fortune 500, are responding and there is a growing consensus that a carbon tax would be an effective solution. Carbon pricing is happening in other nations so Canada will need to follow suit very soon.

DB: What advice do you have for people? What message do you give your students?

BF: Get involved! I tell my students to get involved – join Greenpeace, get out and protest – it’s your future, not mine. My biggest regret is that I did not get more actively involved in environmental politics much earlier. When I came to Canada thirty years ago I was inspired by groups like Pollution Probe. So to see how we have now fallen internationally is a big disappointment.

Bernard Fleet is an environmental scientist and managing partner of Fleet Technology Partners, which works to help businesses adopt clean technology. He is also Adjunct Professor for the Environmental Applied Science and Management master’s program at Ryerson University in Toronto. He teaches a graduate level course titled Our Energy Future - Making the Transition to the Low Carbon Economy. His course lecture slides can be found here. Dr. Fleet has published extensively and currently serves on the board for Electrovaya, which develops electric car batteries. He can be reached at bernard@fleetec.com.
 

In the Current Events blog, Andrew Reeves and Dan Beare discuss a wide array of environmental issues across the country and around the world, from politics and public policy to energy, natural resources, and environmental science.

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University. Dan's posts usually appear bi-weekly on Fridays.

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. Dan has previously published in Municipal World and Environmental Science and Engineering. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and has a Bachelors' degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. 

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