The Hill Times
Rick Smith
TORONTO—Calling political branding geeks: the federal government needs you! After all, it can’t exactly call this national energy conservation that’s been brewing “NEP 2.0.” I can hear those firewalls going up now. So, how about instead “the Ethical Energy Superpower Master plan”? That would be much more in keeping with the current message box.
Regardless of what we decide to call it, the federal government is getting dragged into a national energy discussion. Why is it being dragged into this direction rather than embracing it? Some would say the reticence is due to respect for provincial jurisdiction, even though there are clearly inter-provincial and international dimensions to energy that trigger federal involvement.
Others would say that this government in particular is allergic to any real discussion about the flip side of Canada’s abundant dirty energy sources—global warming pollution. Better to duck, weave, hide behind American inaction, hide behind Saudi Arabian dictators. That is, do anything other than tackle the problem and slow down the rate at which that dirty energy is coming out of the ground, despite the existence of clean energy alternatives.
Yet here we are, at the starting point of a “national energy strategy” discussion that began to gain political traction in the latter part of last year and is now firmly upon us in the lead up to a provincial energy ministers conference in Kananaskis this summer. Why is this?
The cynical me—the one that comes out during extended Sens losing streaks when I find that frustrating—thinks that a big part of the motivation for the discussion comes from a realization by the tar sands industry that it is better to have the federal government perceived to be doing something rather than nothing, or it is left with very little national and international political cover beyond the laughable efforts of Alberta “regulators” (and that term may also need some rebranding given the lame realities).
Yet, the idealist me—the one that comes out during extended Sens losing streaks when I think that there is only one way to go, and that is up—says, let’s at least have this discussion and see where it goes. We may surprise ourselves in our uniquely Canadian way and come to consensus that we have both a collective problem and a collective opportunity, as we have historically done in the past on other issues like health care, social security, and even on environmental matters like acid rain and ozone depletion.
In feeding my idealist side, what would it look like for this energy discussion to prove more than a public relations exercise for an industry getting the tar kicked out of it? Broadly speaking, it must pass three key tests:
First, it must end the rise of Canada’s global warming pollution, period. No more weaseling about changing targets, blaming others, or creative math claiming reductions against ‘business as usual.’ If Canada’s global warming pollution is going up instead of down, we have failed, and failed miserably. And, yes, this applies to the tar sands industry too—either the overall pollution of that industry is going down, or else it is undermining the legitimate efforts of others, like the coal phase out in Ontario, to make progress. And, the myth that carbon capture and storage is some kind of magic silver bullet must be recognized for what it is—an expensive falsehood.
Second, it must embrace the fact that the future lies with creating jobs in renewable energy projects, energy efficiency, and rebuilding Canada’s infrastructure to fit into the new reality of a low carbon global economy, with incentives and disincentives allocated accordingly. This means ending subsidies for fossil fuels and instead investing aggressively in clean energy initiatives and related infrastructure. Right now, the provinces are being left pick up the tab for this all alone, with Ontario’s Green Energy Act being just one example.
Third, it must bring Canada together, or it won’t survive. This may seem contradictory, since the conventional wisdom is that Alberta will never accept a strategy that embraces the first and second tests above, but I don’t think this is true. Alberta does not need to raise greenhouse gas pollution to flourish. It is already flourishing. It also has real opportunities to profit from the clean energy economy just like the rest of Canada, and this in itself would go a long way towards convincing both Albertans and people outside the province that Alberta cares about our children’s future as much as any other place.
Overall, this discussion will be a tough one, or it won’t be real. But I say, bring it on. It is long overdue, and ultimately Canadians will not truly be satisfied with Canada until we resolve it. Let’s call it a matter of “jobs,” “children,” “prosperity,” “responsibility,” and even “ethics.” But, let’s call it and get on with it.
Rick Smith is executive director of Environmental Defence Canada