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Opinion On energy efficiency, cost-minded Doug Ford and Jason Kenney miss the bigger picture

James Riley is the founder and CEO of Lightspark, a Vancouver-based energy-efficiency insights firm.

Imagine there was a way to reduce emissions, save money and increase the value of your home. Now, imagine that two of this country’s leading politicians appeared steadfastly opposed to helping people find that way.

As it turns out, though, that situation is a reality in Canada. Despite the benefits that energy-efficiency programming generates for Canadians – fewer greenhouse gas emissions, yes, but also lower utility bills, and better homes – Premier Doug Ford has axed Ontario’s home-retrofit programs, while Alberta Premier Jason Kenney vowed to do the same on the campaign trail, even as his government now suggests it will judge programs by their merit before a final decision is made. All the same, both leaders have at least demonstrated that they’re only too happy to prioritize short-term savings goals rather than bigger-picture threats such as climate change, and the financial costs that will come with it. As the global economy moves forward, this represents a clear step backward.

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As part of its Paris accord commitments, Canada has pledged to reduce its GHG emissions by 30 per cent compared with 2005 levels by 2030 through the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, the policy road map that will lead Canada to its target of limiting rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees. Energy efficiency can – and should – play a key role in that effort. According to Efficiency Canada, it is estimated that energy efficiency can help reduce Canada’s emissions by 52 million tonnes, by 2030, or 25 per cent of its total Paris target. Arguably, it is the key to having any hope of achieving it: With energy intensity expected to increase over time, our current energy-efficiency efforts aren’t projected to even be aggressive enough to hit the 1.5-degree target – and that doesn’t even take into account the effect of two large provinces ending the programs altogether.

Mr. Ford and Mr. Kenney, with their penny-pinching spirit, should actually find these programs appealing: Unlike carbon pricing, which costs Canadians money (up-front, at least), energy-efficiency measures actually help them save it. According to a recent report from Efficiency Canada, “Canadian consumers would save $1.4-billion on energy bills per year [net of program costs], on average.” Such programs, which can produce a two-to-one return on investment, would even help the much-vilified oil and gas industry become more competitive, Dunsky Energy Consulting chief executive officer Philippe Dunsky says. “Canada’s energy-intensity-per-unit GDP is higher than the U.S., Europe and Japan, and that’s a competitive disadvantage,” he says. “If we become more energy-efficient, our industry becomes more energy-efficient.”

But with holdout premiers in charge of two of Canada’s highest-emitting provinces, it’s been left up to Canadians themselves to pick up the slack in their own homes. That’s not an easy sell, though, as I know firsthand; most Canadians favour short-term cosmetic improvements such as installing hardwood floors and granite countertops, even though energy-efficient improvements save homeowners money over time and can have a positive impact on resale value.

A lack of data has only exacerbated this. Even though government funding to incentivize Canadians to upgrade their homes and businesses by making them smarter has proven to be an effective mechanism (and the savings go right back into the pockets of Canadians), information has not been transparent around these successes. That’s where the federal government can play an important role: by leading a unified and open-data approach so that data is integrated and interoperable, Canadian home and business owners will realize the benefits of these programs.

There is an enormous opportunity here that we cannot pass up. A recent CIBC report found that there is a $78-billion home-improvement market in Canada, much of that inspired by a desire to get value from homes. With more clarity around these programs, utilities, governments and delivery agencies of energy-efficiency programs could be aware of the organizational efficiencies, cost reductions, business-objective alignments and resource capacity that they haven’t been taking advantage of. More information would help highlight that these will dramatically increase the speed at which we can reach the Pan-Canadian Framework’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. And maybe, marshalled together and wielded like a shield, it would even be enough to convince two budget-slashing politicians governing the two provinces most crucial to a climate-change solution that by scrapping these cost-effective programs, they’re only shooting themselves in the foot.

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