On the Record: "Climate Change, The Great Challenge and Opportunity of our Time"

Today Clare Demerse, our Senior Policy Advisor, presented at Climate Change—The Great Challenge and Opportunity of our Time part of the FACTS (French Ameri-Can Climate TalkS) series. Here is what she had to say: 

Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today to participate in such an important conversation.

I really like the title of today’s event, in that it emphasizes not just the challenge—something we spend a lot of time on here in Ottawa—but also the opportunity of tackling climate change.

My organization, Clean Energy Canada, invests a lot of time in tracking that opportunity, and in promoting policies to help our country seize it.

I’d like to make three points with you today:

  • First, clean energy is now very big business, and Canada could be among the winners in the global shift to clean energy.
  • Second: on the other hand, there are risks for Canada if we fail to understand and seize that opportunity.
  • And third, one of those risks is that it will be very difficult for Canada to make a constructive contribution at the Paris talks if we aren’t actively making a clean energy transition here at home.

When I say “clean energy,” I’m talking about renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro power as well as innovations in the way we consume energy.

We published a report last month tracking the astonishing growth of clean energy around the world. Here are some of the highlights:

  • According to the International Energy Agency, last year saw clean energy grow at its fastest pace to date. Clean energy now generates as much power around the world as natural gas.
  • Investors directed $207 billion dollars to clean energy projects in 2013, coming close to the amount invested in fossil-fuel power generation.
  • In the past five years, the price of a solar module has fallen by 83 per cent. That’s a game changer for global solar uptake.
  • 2013 was the first time China invested more money in new renewable-energy capacity than it did in new coal plants, making China the world’s leader in both wind and solar.

What this says to me is if you think fossil fuels are big business, then I guess you think clean energy is big business too.

Here in Ottawa, there is sometimes a tendency to think of clean energy as sitting at the kids’ table of Canada’s energy banquet, but that does a disservice to our clean power potential. Yes, we have the world’s third largest oil reserves, but we’re also third in the world in generating hydro power. In 2012, more Canadians were directly employed in clean energy—at jobs like running a wind power station or making retrofits to homes to increase their energy efficiency—than were directly employed in the oil sands.

It’s probably pretty intuitive that clean energy helps reduce the environmental footprint of the electricity sector: of course electricity generated from the sun or the wind produces less pollution than electricity from burning coal. But clean power is actually an even more important climate solution than it may appear at first blush.

That’s because climate science tells us we need to leave the majority of today’s reserves of fossil fuels in the ground. So we’ll need to start using electricity as the source of power for things we do with fossil fuels today, from driving our cars to heating our homes. And to cut emissions, that electricity has to be clean.

So that’s the opportunity and the promise of clean energy.

Of course, we know that Canada’s fossil fuel sectors present opportunities too. In the oil sands specifically, for example, we hear a lot about the opportunity for a massive expansion, leading to jobs, investment, and revenues for governments. We also know that our federal government, along with Alberta’s government, has been very eager to help the sector reach new markets.

But the landscape in those markets is changing. Demand for oil is already dropping in the U.S. today. As part of its “war on pollution,” China is making a big bet on electric vehicles. And it’s fair to hope that governments will make stronger climate commitments in the leadup to the Paris talks.

Building out the oil sands at top speed requires billions and billions of dollars in investment. If that’s our sole economic vision—if that’s the core investment our government chooses to promote—we risk being offside with our customers’ interests. What if Canada doubles down on oil sands crude while the world moves to clean energy?

People talk about this phenomenon as “peak demand” for oil or “the carbon bubble.” In a nutshell, here’s what those terms mean for Canada: what if instead of wanting to buy our oil, China wants to sell us its electric cars?

Of course, what I just described is only one of many potential future scenarios—but it’s one we as Canadians do need to consider.

Strongly supporting clean energy gives us more diversity, more resilience, and opportunities right across our country.

And it would allow Canada to make a far more constructive contribution to the global effort to tackle climate change, which is my final point today.

Imagine a country that sees solar power as its strongest comparative advantage.

Think about what that does to that country’s positions at global climate talks. If other countries adopt strong climate targets, great—that means more export markets. Carbon pricing? Perfect—that helps level the playing field for the solar industry.

Now consider a government focused on growing its exports of high-carbon crude. Everything shifts: climate action can look like a threat to that country, because it could cut into demand for a high-carbon product. And if that country’s emissions are projected to keep growing from now to 2020 to 2030—largely because of development in the heavy oil sector—making a strong national commitment to cut carbon pollution might not feel like a very appealing prospect.

I think that’s exactly where Canada stands today: despite examples of real leadership at the provincial level, our federal government is doing very little to realize our country’s low-carbon potential. And we see the consequences of that choice in Canada’s position in global climate negotiations.

I haven’t been to the UN climate talks in person since my first child was born. (And now that I’m expecting another one, I probably won’t see another negotiation session myself for a couple more years.) But here’s what I saw at every session I did attend, from Bali to Cancun: the countries that lead on the world stage are the same ones taking action at home. It’s that simple.

If you’re not involved in the low-carbon transition for 50 weeks of the year, two weeks of negotiations—even two incredibly intense weeks in Paris—can only do so much to change that.

Think of it like running a race.

Let’s say my friends put pressure on me to sign up for a race with them. If I would rather have dental surgery than go out for a run, just signing up doesn’t get me very far.

But if I already run a couple times a week, and I know I can do five kilometers in around 26 minutes, I might be ready to sign up for a 25 minute target—maybe even 24. In this case, the pressure from my friends feeds into a habit I already have, but stretches me a bit beyond my comfort zone.

I don’t mean to suggest that the UN negotiations aren’t important. On the contrary, they’re critical. Countries need to know there will be other runners in the race. And do we need every country in this race, because this is truly a global problem that demands an international solution. So if the UN talks ensure every country at least walks around the track, that’s much better that not joining the race at all.

But UN negotiations can’t magically turn a couch potato into a marathoner. You need real dedication and ongoing effort for that.

One way to sustain that effort is by starting to enjoy the challenge. (If you think of running as your favorite part of the day, you’re going to do it more often.) That’s where clean energy comes in: once we in Canada embrace the low-carbon opportunity, and see the jobs created and the innovative companies flourish, we’ll be excited rather than fearful about the transition we need to make.

Fortunately, Canada is already relatively well-positioned for success in the clean energy economy.

Analysis from McKinsey, done for Natural Resources Canada, found that our country has significant clean power potential.

In addition to our massive hydropower generation capacity, McKinsey also found that Canada could take a lead in energy efficient buildings, off-grid solar, and marine power, among others.

Our country saw well over $6 billion invested in clean energy last year, moving us from 12th to 7th place among G20 nations, with most of that thanks to provincial leadership.

So Canada has all the skills, resources and ingenuity we need to prosper in a low carbon future. What we need now is to realize that, welcome it, and make it a policy priority—preferably well ahead of the Paris climate talks.

Thank you.

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