Canada not doing enough to support transition to a green economy

Originally published in the Hill Times, Monday December 2, 2013

TORONTO—Key elements of a green economy are support for the growth of renewable energy, increased energy efficiency, and low-carbon transit. But surprisingly, Canada is one of the only developed countries without a national renewable energy target. There is practically no federal support for energy efficiency since the hugely popular ecoEnergy Retrofits program was scrapped a couple of years ago. And Canada is the only G8 country without a national transit strategy. 

To support the shift to a green economy, Canada needs to take action to curb pollution through regulation and taxation so as to reward companies that pollute less. Instead, federal environmental legislation has been gutted. According to a recent report out of the EU, Canada now ranks 55th of 58 countries, ahead of only Iran, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia, when it comes to action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And, our government actually applauded the move by incoming Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to repeal their carbon tax. 

If Canada was serious about the green economy, we’d make good on our commitment as a member of the G20 to phase out subsides to fossil fuels. Instead, the phase out has been proceeding at a snail’s pace. In fact, the federal government worked to water down a commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies at last year’s Earth Summit in Rio. 

Yes, there are some good things happening in a number of provinces, including the phase out of coal-fired electricity in Ontario. But federal leadership is lacking, and many of these positive moves are swamped by regressive actions elsewhere in the country. 

It’s not that hard to understand the lack of progress. For example, the group representing Canada’s oil companies recently warned that even just a small price on carbon, roughly $1 per barrel, could undermine the competitiveness of Canada’s oil industry. Few would dispute that there is a lot of economic activity linked to that industry.  

Many Canadians question whether this economic boon should trump the environmental costs. But they are conflicted: while they support action on climate change, they cannot imagine an economy not dependent on fossil fuels. 

The thing is, the economic case has been overstated. 

Yes, oil is an important part of our economy, but not as important as many people think. Oil and gas extraction is only responsible for about six per cent of our GDP. Meanwhile manufacturing is responsible for twice that amount. And because oil extraction, and oil sands projects in particular, are so capital intensive, oil and gas is not a large employer. 

Moreover, not only are the economic benefits of oil overstated, but they will prove to be fleeting when we finally get serious about carbon pollution. Yes, progress is slow at the moment, but in the face of the increasingly grave impacts of climate change, it’s a mistake to believe that all governments will continue to sit idly by. 

In Canada, home to the third largest reserves of oil in the world, it’s tempting to ignore this reality. It’s tempting to bet that action will not be forthcoming. 

But it’s quite likely that David Emerson, the former international trade minister, was right when he said that there will come a time when, “We may have heavy oil to sell, but few or no profitable markets wishing to buy.”

It would be devastating for the oil industry to vanish overnight. And no one is advocating that. But we do need to slow the rate of expansion and reduce our reliance on oil both as a fuel and as an industry. 

Instead of betting on an industry that will cause devastating climate change, we should be planning for a low-carbon future and putting ourselves in a position to make the products that will be in demand in that future.  

We should be listening to the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an organization created by Brian Mulroney, who found that without new policies, Canada would miss out on a $60-billion domestic market in low-carbon goods and services, and over 400,000 jobs. 

If Canada were serious about the green economy, we’d heed the roundtable’s warning that “...allowing an economy to centre its trade on high-carbon exports in the absence of a long-term transition plan can lead to long-term stagnation and economic malaise.” 

Sadly, the National Roundtable was shut down instead, presumably so we could keep our heads in the sand and enjoy some peace and quiet.  

Keith Brooks is a program manager at Environmental Defence, where he coordinates the activities of Blue Green Canada, an alliance between Canadian labour unions and environmental organizations to support the shift to a green economy.