Over the past year energy issues have featured heavily in political and public debate across the country. And Canadians might be forgiven for feeling confused (if they haven't tuned out) given how polarized things have become: Are we purveyors of "ethical oil" or "dirty oil?" Are we on track to fulfill our commitments to reduce carbon pollution and tackle climate disruption, or destined to fall short? Are we an emerging energy superpower or a laggard in the accelerating transition to a global low carbon economy? All this conflict has only served to obscure important signals that should be guiding our leaders as they weigh how best to address Canada's energy and climate challenges.
When Canada's premiers met at the Council of the Federation in Halifax a year ago they kick-started the development of a Canadian energy strategy. In the communiqué released at the end of the meeting, our premiers committed to developing an energy strategy that would deliver "a more integrated approach to climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing the transition to a lower carbon economy." Pretty heady stuff, and perhaps surprising given the extent to which climate change and energy policy have been confined to separate boxes, despite their obvious relationship.
Canada has a wealth of renewable energy sources and many examples of innovative clean energy technologies and services that are helping Canadians save energy, save money and reduce carbon pollution. And we're just starting to scratch the surface of their potential. So it's surprising that, a year on, we're hearing relatively little on the topic of clean energy and low-carbon solutions from our provincial leaders.
A recent poll conducted by Harris-Decima found that Canadians clearly understand the imperative and opportunity of a low-carbon transition, and the role an integrated climate and energy strategy can play. When asked whether "We need a Canadian climate and energy strategy to plan our nation's energy future," a remarkable 87 per cent of Canadians agree. Furthermore, 62 per cent agree that, "A Canadian energy strategy will only be successful if it transitions Canada to a low-carbon economy."
As the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy stated in its final report: "The future is low carbon. Economies the world over are making the transition. Canada's actions today on climate, energy, trade, innovation, and skills will shape its economic prosperity for decades to come." Beyond our borders, countries have already begun focusing on energy technologies and services rather than just energy commodities, and with good reason. The International Energy Agency suggests that the low carbon goods and services market is rapidly growing: valued at $339-billion in 2010, in an emissions-constrained scenario the market could reach $8.3-trillion by 2050 – an annual growth rate of 8 per cent.
Canadians understand that reducing carbon pollution can't simply be considered a burden – but is also an immense opportunity to prosper by providing the solutions that will transition Canada and the world to a low-carbon economy. When asked to indicate to what degree they would prioritize a series of objectives for a Canadian energy strategy, poll respondents identified as a "top" or "high" priority "improving energy efficiency" (80 per cent), "creating more jobs in clean energy" (73 per cent), "reducing Canada's carbon pollution to slow down climate change" (67 per cent), and "reducing our reliance on fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal" (61 per cent). In contrast, only 31 per cent of those surveyed placed a "top" or "high" priority on "exporting more of Canada's oil and gas resources."
As the Roundtable report found, Canada is well-positioned to compete in the global low carbon goods and services marketplace. Further, and notably in light of the tensions that arise from the geographically concentrated nature of Canada's fossil fuel reserves, our low-carbon opportunities are well-distributed across the country.
This week, Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario will host her counterparts at the Council of the Federation meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where premiers will receive an update on progress in developing a Canadian energy strategy. As they contemplate the vision, principles and outcomes the strategy should deliver, they must recognize that addressing climate change and transitioning to a low-carbon energy system must lie at the heart of an integrated climate and energy strategy.
In the end, the success of a Canadian energy strategy will hinge on the extent to which it both reduces carbon pollution and positions Canada to compete in the global low carbon, clean energy economy – an economic reality and opportunity we can no longer afford to ignore.
Merran Smith is the director of Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada; Nancy Olewiler is the director of the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University; and Andrew Heintzman is the president of Investeco Capital.
Authors' note: The Harris-Decima teleVox poll was commissioned by Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada, and surveyed 1,000 Canadians by telephone between July 4-8, 2013, and the survey reflects an error interval of +/- 3.1 per cent.