Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, a central figure in net-zero debate, gives a government update in Calgary on Jan. 10.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Canada’s efforts to retool its economy to achieve net-zero carbon emissions are being jeopardized by federal-provincial squabbling, and the co-chair of the panel advising Ottawa says independent industry experts should be deployed to bridge the political divides.

Dan Wicklum of the Net Zero Advisory Body (NZAB) says Canada should implement a series of industrial policies to reach net zero by 2050. These are crucial for living up to international climate commitments, but also to take advantage of the economic opportunities, he says. The NZAB released its inaugural annual report Friday, with 25 pieces of advice for the government.

The debate is already highly charged. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith loudly opposes federal plans for oil-and-gas-sector retraining to prepare for the shift to lower-carbon energy in the coming decades. She has pounced on briefing notes that, she says, show the federal government is bent on eliminating the industry and putting hundreds of thousands of Albertans out of work under the guise of a “just transition.” Ottawa has said the numbers in the briefing notes reflect workers that could be affected by the shift and may need extra support.

Canada’s oil sands are making billions – and very little of it is going to net-zero commitments

Such intergovernmental friction represents a “uniquely Canadian challenge,” though other major economies have their own hurdles, said Mr. Wicklum, who once headed up the energy sector’s environmental technology co-operative, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance.

“We can’t let this get in the way of progress, so we do need to tackle this in new and different ways,” he said.

Independent intermediaries who are experts in various sectors, such as energy or transportation, can offer knowledge and seek know-how from others in their fields, as well as develop “sectoral buy-in,” the NZAB said in its report. Such go-betweens can improve the flow of information between industry and government and help keep climate-related initiatives from getting derailed by commercial interests.

In addition, Mr. Wicklum said, they can help lower the political heat. “If the federal government takes on a consultation about what the future needs to look like in a certain sector, and that sector is very important to a province, that whole piece of work is immediately politicized,” he said.

“What other countries have done is they have counted on these independent intermediaries to bring different interests to the table, supported them with independent, transparent techno-economic analysis and other types of analysis, and that has led in other jurisdictions to quicker progress and meaningful progress to develop and implement plans.”

As an example of a potential expert group, he mentioned Accelerate, an alliance of academics, organized labour, manufacturers, mining companies and environmental groups tasked with developing a Canadian zero-emission vehicle supply chain in line with emission targets.

The NZAB was created in 2021 under the Canadian Net Zero Emissions Accountability Act. It now has nine members after the departure of five others in the past two years. Many of the recommendations in its report are aimed at getting the government and industry to reach the targets set out in Ottawa’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, which calls for greenhouse gas emissions to fall 40 per cent to 45 per cent in that time frame.

The panel calls for launching a power grid council to find ways to create a nationwide net-zero electricity system by 2035, with interties between provincial networks. It recommends expediting regulatory approvals, as well as rejigging government investment pools, such as the Strategic Innovation Fund and the Canada Growth Fund, to focus on projects that are aligned with net-zero industrial policy.

The NZAB urges Ottawa to set “net-zero competitiveness goals” for sectors it considers priorities in conjunction with business, other levels of government, independent experts and labour. They should align with the emissions reduction plan in terms of strategy and timeliness.

Competition has emerged as a serious threat to investment in Canadian climate-related projects ever since the United States passed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, with its US$369-billion in tax credits and other incentives for carbon capture, electric vehicles, renewable energy and other technologies. Industry participants worry that capital earmarked for Canadian projects could instead flow to the U.S. without similar subsidies.

Mr. Wicklum cautions against trying to mimic U.S. policies, instead arguing in favour of approaches that play to Canada’s industrial strengths and climate goals. “It behooves us to have more of a sophisticated view than try to compete with the largest economy in the world on the same sectors using the exact same policy instruments,” he said. “We should get a really diligent analysis to make sure that we’re developing a strategy that is Canada’s rather than a ‘U.S.-lite.’”

Jeffrey Jones writes about sustainable finance and the ESG sector. E-mail him at jeffjones@globeandmail.com.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe