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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's UCP government scrapped the previous administration’s climate strategy, which included a consumer carbon levy, as one of its first orders of business in 2019.Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

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Alberta’s major cities have a $61-billion opportunity to become cleantech hubs, replete with all the expertise needed to become serious players in pushing the global economy through the transition to net-zero emissions.

This transformation is already in its early stages, as companies large and small invest in a wide range of innovations in renewable energy, carbon capture, hydrogen production, agricultural technology and the digital networks required for all of it to run.

But there’s a problem, and it needs to be solved quickly for all that potential to become reality: Alberta’s mixed messages on whether it wants to play a leadership role in a global energy transition that, until recently, the government scoffed at.

Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party have often taken a pugilistic stance that gives the perception they see energy as a zero-sum game – a fight between fossil fuels and renewables. The uncertainty could scare off some of the providers of the capital from outside Canada looking for the next big green investment prospect.

That multibillion-dollar opportunity is the estimated increase to Alberta’s gross domestic product by 2050, the target year for Canada to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. It was one of the headline numbers in a report issued this week by the economic development agencies of Calgary and Edmonton.

Realizing the clean-tech potential would result in 170,000 jobs, said the report, conducted by consultancies Delphi Group, Foresight Canada and Cleantech Group for the cities. Both have new mayors who pledge to make fighting climate change a priority.

For all of that economic bounty to come to pass, the industry will need $2.1-billion in investment annually by 2030, increasing to $5.5-billion by 2040. Today it gets about $1-billion a year.

Much of the required money for full expansion would have to flow from outside Canada, and before that happens those investors need to be comfortable that Alberta has a strong and consistent climate policy and leadership on that front, the report said.

Today, that’s lacking. Mr. Kenney’s UCP government scrapped the previous administration’s climate strategy, which included a consumer carbon levy, as one of its first orders of business in 2019. It then fought a losing legal battle against the federal government’s carbon tax, imposed because Alberta no longer had one.

It launched a $3.5-million inquiry in 2019 with one of the goals to disparage environmental groups and climate activists, which it accused of being anti-oil puppets doing the bidding of big-money foreign funders. The final report showed little evidence that was the case and concluded green groups were exercising their freedom of speech in opposing fossil-fuel development.

While all this has played out, the cleantech industry has grown – and no small portion of it has been funded by the oil and gas industry itself. Calgary is home to 462 cleantech companies and Edmonton has 429. Calgary sees the sector as key to helping rejuvenate a downtown core where a third of the office space sits empty following years of oil and gas downturn.

The UCP government has lately supported various solutions that could help reduce carbon emissions, such as hydrogen production and carbon capture, utilization and storage. Doug Schweitzer, Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation, has been the front man for stimulating new-economy activity in the province.

But industry is much further down the path. Large energy companies, private-equity firms and other investors have turned their attention to energy-transition opportunities. Companies such as Suncor Energy Inc. and Cenovus Energy Inc. have provided funding for cleantech ventures, including Evok Innovations and Svante Inc., as they seek to reduce their own emissions. The oil sands producers have set a net-zero goal, even though the province has not.

There is an active network of investors, financial institutions and legal firms with expertise in the cleantech arena.

Still, as the report makes clear, direction must come from government. It warns investors are getting “less positive signals” that energy transition is not a priority. It cited the cancellation of an investor tax credit for new technology and the scrapping of the provincial consumer carbon tax as examples.

Foreign investors will weigh the potential for cleantech in Alberta versus other jurisdictions, where industry and government are aligned. These are multidecade opportunities, and with Alberta’s wealth of energy expertise it would be more than just a shame if mixed messaging got in the way.

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

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