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Barry Smit is professor emeritus of geography at the University of Guelph and was a lead author in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

My grandparents were homesteaders on the Canadian Prairies. In the 1920s, Bert and Bonnie were farming their quarter section in central Alberta, between Trochu and Torrington. Like most people across Alberta at that time, they relied on horses to plow the land, sow and harvest crops and to go into town for essential services. My dad and most of his classmates went to school on horseback. My grandmother told me stories of getting around in winter, riding in an open, horse-drawn cutter, bundled under blankets and buffalo hides.

Of course, the reliance on horses was not unique to rural Alberta. Throughout most of the world, horses were the main source of power – hence the term “horsepower.” However, the intense reliance on horses would fade out more quickly than many at the time would have imagined. There are lessons we can take from that transition today as we move away from the era of fossil fuels and toward renewables.

In the early 1900s, with almost everyone relying on horses, it is not surprising that horse businesses represented a major sector of the economy. There were jobs in horse breeding, trading and housing, farriers, veterinarians, harness and sleigh manufacturers, sales and repair businesses. There were more jobs dependent on horses than any other sector. In 1910, Calgary was home to about 40,000 people, yet in Calgary’s downtown alone, there were 12 blacksmith shops and 15 livery stables. One barn on 11th Street housed 60 teams of dray horses, which were used to haul heavy loads.

While horses were the backbone of Alberta’s economy, there were issues. In Calgary, the waste from all those animals – deposited in streets and shovelled into huge piles – was a problem for citizens and public officials. The waste – what we might now call an “externality” – made streets impassable and the air putrid, polluted watercourses, harboured diseases and compromised public health. There were calls for the horse sector to “clean up its act.”

Back on the family farm, one day in 1928, Bert arrived at the homestead in a newfangled contraption, much to the delight of my dad, his family and many neighbours, who had gathered to see the new automobile. Encouraged by the cheering, Bert proudly steered into the barn, called out his usual “whoa” and crashed through the back wall. Fortunately, there were no injuries and they were able to repair the barn and the front of the car.

Families across the country were attracted to the convenience and power of the internal combustion engine. It was also accepted that this technology was cleaner, less harmful to human health and the environment. At first, automobiles were expensive, roads were not suited for cars and fuel and maintenance were hard to get. However, the transition was under way. As people shifted from horses to tractors, trucks and cars, demand for horses declined.

Smart operators adapted to the new reality, and many in the business of horses started selling and maintaining automobiles. Governments facilitated the transition with improvements in roads and other infrastructure. Within a few decades there was a far-reaching transition in technology, individual behaviour, businesses and the structure of the economy. Some companies didn’t adapt, but many adjusted and prospered. All sorts of new businesses realized the opportunities that came with this transition.

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We are now undergoing another transition as renewable forms of energy replace the fossil fuels that have served us well for more than a century.

We now know fossil fuels are a major contributor to changes in Earth’s climate. Fossil sources of energy are finite and are becoming increasingly difficult and costly to extract. The transition to renewables is inevitable.

Many corporations, even in the oil and gas sector, are moving to renewables. The world’s largest automobile manufacturers have announced plans to completely replace the internal combustion engine. In 2020, despite the pandemic, the world’s renewable energy capacity jumped 45 per cent. Over the past decade, renewables were the only category of energy that grew at double digits globally.

Canada seems to be missing out on the opportunities that come with this energy transition. Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway – countries with cold winters like us – have developed and employed major advances in renewables. In Norway, 98 per cent of electricity production comes from renewable sources. Renewables supply 33 per cent of the total energy in Denmark, 40 per cent in Finland and 54 per cent in Sweden.

In 2020, Europe generated more energy from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. European oil and gas companies are making ambitious pledges to switch from making money from oil to making money from sunshine and wind. In fact, they no longer want to be called oil companies, preferring “energy companies.” The R&D and manufacturing of technology in renewables are occurring mainly in Europe and Asia, and it is those economies that are benefiting from the innovation, production and export opportunities.

There are other examples of transitions of this kind. Refrigeration was a technological godsend, cutting food waste and reducing food-borne diseases. Early refrigerators used methyl chloride and other toxic gases, and by the 1920s the dangers from refrigerant leakage were evident and serious. A replacement was developed by DuPont and others. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were considered to be a “miracle compound” and became widely used in refrigerators, air conditioners, aerosol sprays, foams and packing materials. Also known as “Freons,” CFCs were very big business.

In the 1970s, scientists discovered CFCs were accumulating in the stratosphere, destroying the ozone layer, allowing harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach earth, damaging plants, animals, buildings and human health. As moves to address the dangers of CFCs developed, in the face of overwhelming evidence, DuPont initially challenged the science and resisted action. Eventually, in 1987, an international agreement (the Montreal Protocol) was reached, in which countries committed to phase out CFCs. Companies, including DuPont, quickly developed alternatives to CFCs, and those businesses did very well indeed as products with CFCs were replaced. The transition was so successful that in 1992 the terms of the protocol were altered to speed up the ending of CFC production.

Today, CFCs are almost gone, the ozone layer is largely intact, damage to the environment, people and property has been avoided, and businesses and jobs have benefited by the transition to environmentally friendly and profitable alternatives.

Another product that experienced a transition was asbestos, a mineral that was widely used for structural reinforcement and insulation in buildings and automobiles for decades. The industry supported thousands of jobs, notably in Quebec. In the 1970s, evidence mounted on the dangers of asbestos. Recognition of the health and safety hazards of asbestos led to restrictions on its use in many countries, as well as to the development and use of alternative products.

The transition has benefited insulation companies using fibreglass, mineral wool and glass wool. Companies that produced asbestos cement products have developed alternatives incorporating organic fibres. Asbestos production in Canada finally ended when the Quebec government withdrew its subsidization of mining and directed the public funds to economic diversification. The town of Asbestos recently changed its name to Val-des-Sources.

All of these transitions were prompted by scientific insights, technological developments and realizations of new business opportunities. In all of these transitions there emerged vocal groups, confronting and blaming. There is no need to demonize an industry or to insult those who advocate for change. Horses, CFCs and asbestos served us well in their time, with what we knew at the time, and many benefited from the shifts to their replacements.

So, too, with our transition from fossil fuels to renewables, there is no need to disparage an industry nor to vilify those who promote a change. Also, the transition will not happen overnight. The shift from horses to fossil fuels took decades. And just as no one suggested the need to get rid of horses altogether, so, too, is there no need to eliminate fossil fuels altogether.

Individuals and businesses can choose to be part of the transition, to benefit from the opportunities it brings or not. Governments can also choose to facilitate the transition, to encourage the realization of the opportunities that come with renewable energy. At the moment, Canada is a laggard in the energy transition, and we are missing out on the economic benefits that arise.

Governments have assisted in past transitions. Surely, there are lessons learnt from the government adjustment programs with asbestos in Quebec, fisheries in Atlantic Canada and tobacco farming in Ontario. At a minimum, does it make sense to continue to subsidize fossil fuel producers to the tune of billions of dollars of taxpayer money each year? Public funds would be better served assisting those communities that, for no fault of their own, become vulnerable during the transition.

In their day, horses served us well and so, too, have fossil fuels. It is now time to embrace the move to renewable energy and benefit from the environmental benefits and financial opportunities it will bring.

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