A non-partisan approach to renewable energy

MONTREAL, QUEBEC - It's time to stop playing politics with climate change. Canadians must put their differences aside and work together to tackle one of the greatest challenges posed to humanity.

Unless we act now, climate change could have massive environmental, social, economic and security implications. Loss of biodiversity, devastated traditional hunting grounds, drought plagued prairies, restricted access to traditional energy markets and climate refugees could all threaten Canada's future prosperity.

The window of opportunity to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system is shrinking every year. After energy conservation and efficiency, one of the most effective ways to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions is to use energy sources that emit dramatically fewer greenhouse gases than carbon-based fuels. Not only do such sources exist in Canada, they are immensely abundant.

These sources are, of course, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectric energy. Although many of these forms of energy were significantly more expensive decades ago, skyrocketing oil prices mean that renewable energies are becoming more and more competitive.

Furthermore, increasing demand for oil and coal coupled with escalating geopolitical, technological and environmental recovery costs will continue to boost their price on world markets. The right market incentives and fiscal instruments, on the other hand, can help to intensify demand for renewable sources of energy which will lead to a decrease in their price.

Other countries seized the opportunity of making renewables a priority in their energy strategies decades ago. Germany, for example, significantly increased its proportion of renewable energy by investing heavily in research and development in the 1970s and 1980s; creating market measures to encourage renewables in the 1990s (e.g., electric utilities were obliged to tie-in and distribute energy from renewable sources); and finally, creating fiscal measures in the 2000s (such as eco-taxes on gasoline and payroll deduction reductions).

In Sweden, a market-based green electricity certificate system was introduced in 2003 to promote cost effective electricity production based on renewables as well as competition between different renewable energy sources. The result is that renewable energy constitutes over 28 per cent of Sweden's total primary energy supply in 2006.

Even the European Union, whose member states face far more different energy production realities than our provinces and territories, established the Renewable Energy Road Map in 2007, which sets an overall mandatory target of 20 per cent of the proportion of renewable energy figuring in gross energy domestic consumption by 2020.

Given Canada's vast sources and territory for renewables in terms of water, wind, coastal areas and residual waste from its forest and agricultural sector, and given its advanced technological expertise (e.g., Bombardier and AVAC), there is no excuse to lag behind northern Europe. Just as British Petroleum changed its name to Beyond Petroleum, Canada must now look beyond fossil fuels in diversifying its energy production and usage.

It is still not too late for Canada to surge ahead. Making better use of residual waste from forests ravaged by pine beetle infestations or restructuring the automobile industry to produce hybrid vehicles will provide social and environmental benefits as well as concrete economic results for sectors presently facing hardships such as forestry and manufacturing.

The first step in making renewable fuels more attractive is to level the playing field between renewable and fossil fuels by ensuring that the latter stops receiving tax breaks from governments and takes into account the full socio-environmental costs of its production and usage. And in order for industries and individuals to understand the full cost of producing and using fossil fuels, pricing carbon is imperative. Only then will renewable energy sources become viable alternatives to fossil fuels in the free market.

Carbon tax regimes like the one in British Columbia could well be the catalyst required for Canada to capitalize on its vast renewable energy potential.

Another essential step in moving towards renewables is mainstreaming policies.

Successful policies that address climate change, particularly promoting renewables, necessarily cross departments, sectors and jurisdictions. No single department or ministry can effectively tackle all their complexities. Hence the need to elevate federal policy coordination from one department to a higher-level body that will ensure integration throughout the federal and provincial governments.

Indeed, the changes necessary to ‘decarbonize’ our economy will require a complete reorganization and mobilization of the machinery of government.

One possible manner of elevating climate coordination is to establish a climate cabinet which would include ministers from key departments whose policies most affect climate change mitigation and adaptation. Once established, this climate cabinet could establish an all-party joint Parliamentary committee of MPs and senators to oversee the transition from a carbon-based energy sector to a diversified energy sector that includes a significant proportion of renewables.

Given that many energy programs and initiatives do not fall within federal jurisdiction, a National Climate Council with provincial, territorial and municipal representatives could also be convoked to better coordinate strategies and policies.

Elevating the profile of an environmental issue and bringing it to the core of federal decision-making is not only realistic but it has already been done. Indeed, the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, which became law in June 2008, mandates the creation of a new Cabinet Committee on Sustainable Development which oversees the development and implementation of such a strategy.

Just as the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy will push the issue of sustainable development up the political food chain, so can the creation of a climate cabinet and of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to oversee its activities.

Yet another step in enhancing renewables in Canada's energy sector is to establish measurable targets as the EU has done. The Joint Parliamentary Committee could similarly set targets to increase the proportion of our energy supply coming from renewables, defining the targets so they can be regularly evaluated by the Auditor General's Office.

Alternatively, and perhaps more quickly as the Act is already law, the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy could include renewable energy targets recommended by the Joint Committee. In turn, the minister responsible for meeting this target will be held accountable while performance-based contracts for federal civil servants ensure that meeting the targets is a key criterion for evaluating their achievements.

These are but a few ideas that can unite Canadians in transforming our energy sector to be more sustainable and competitive. We must act now if we are to catch up with other countries, such as Sweden, that have made renewable energy and sustainable development a pillar of their economy and a priority for their governments.


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