More bang for our buck: How Canada can create 18,000 more jobs

Just because a person says something over and over doesn’t mean it’s true.

Take, for example, the assertion that Canada should put the pedal-to-the-metal in the oil sands because the economic benefits outweigh the environmental costs.

As a report released today shows, that argument simply is not true. We don’t need to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. And doubling down on the oil sands isn’t the best way to approach either. 

The oil sands are an economically risky endeavor and, in addition to the environmental impacts, there are a number of downsides to relying so heavily on a volatile commodity. Moreover, investing our money in renewable energy and energy efficiency would create many more jobs, and reduce pollution.

For a concrete example, we looked at the $1.3 billion in taxpayer money our federal government currently hands to the oil industry in the form of subsidies. We asked: What if, instead of subsidizing polluters, the money was invested in industries that cut pollution?

We crunched the numbers and found that $1.3 billion invested in renewable energy or energy efficiency could create between 18,000-20,000 jobs. In comparison, that same amount of money invested in oil and gas would yield less than 3,000 jobs. That’s a difference of 17,000 jobs!

Our conclusion: Clean energy investments yield more bang for our buck (which is why we called the report that.)

If this seems surprising, it may be that the oil industry’s PR strategy is working.

But these numbers are in keeping with international trends, as countries around the world are weaning themselves off fossil fuels and moving towards clean, renewable energy. In 2011, $280 billion was invested in renewables around the world. Globally, over a trillion dollars have been invested in green energy since 2004. Last year also marked a major milestone as investments in electricity from renewable sources topped similar investments in coal, oil and natural gas for the first time.

Thanks to all this, employment in renewable energy is booming. Some 5 million people are now employed in renewables globally, more than double the number employed in 2006. This growth occurred through the recession, and continues today, even as other industries struggle in the wake of the global economic crisis.

The prospects for renewables look bright, too. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy will top coal as a primary source of electricity by 2035.

Canada can and should work to capture a larger share of this market. The National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy estimates Canada could have a $60 billion domestic market in low-carbon goods and services, which would create 400,000 jobs. But that’s not where we’re headed at present.

Our fevered commitment to oil is leading Canada in the wrong direction. In an effort to pave the way for oil sands expansion we rolled back environmental legislation at home. And our zeal for oil is also behind our performance at international climate talks, where Canada has repeated been singled out as a bad actor.

If Canada’s tarnished reputation isn’t enough to provoke our country to change tacks, hopefully understanding the economics will.

Increasing our dependence on the oil sands isn’t a smart economic strategy. And if we carry on down this road, we could be left high and dry. Oil sands need high prices to be profitable, but high prices are not a sure thing. Oil is a volatile commodity, and prices swing up and down and all around.

Just last week, reports of America’s newfound oil provoked questions about whether the U.S. – traditionally the largest buyer of Canadian oil – would have any future demand for our product. It also raised questions about continued high prices for North American oil, and a drop in prices would threaten the entire oil sands undertaking.

And as we increase our reliance on oil, we increase our exposure to this volatility. We saw a glimpse of what this could mean just last week when both the Alberta and Federal governments said they won’t be able to balance budgets as quickly as planned because of low oil prices.

The good news is that there is an alternative, one that is better for our economy and our environment. And the better news is that Canadians have a history of making good choices when faced with tough decisions. We’ll make the right choice this time, and looking back, we’ll be glad we did, and glad that Canada is on the right side of history.