Creating jobs and fighting climate change by buying clean

Parliament is beginning its term on the heels of the devastating flooding in B.C. and the global COP26 climate summit. Climate action is high on the agenda, as the recent speech from the throne reiterated.

“We have the raw materials and skilled workforce to produce the clean products that the world will need to cut pollution and create a green economy,” said the prime minister’s statement following the speech. “The Government of Canada will continue to invest in our workers and industry to help bring us into the economy of the future.”

As representatives from heavy industry, labour and environmental movements, we strongly agree. Canada has a wealth of talent, some of the cleanest electricity in the world, and the raw materials and manufacturing base that could play a vital role in the global transition to net zero. 

So what should the government do to leverage this opportunity? 

It needs a “Buy Clean” strategy. “Buying Clean” means integrating climate considerations, such as the “embodied carbon” emissions associated with construction materials, into decisions about public procurement and infrastructure spending. Public spending is a powerful lever, accounting for 13 per cent of Canada’s GDP and more than a quarter of cement and steel consumption. 

In their election platform, the Liberals committed to introducing a “Buy Clean Strategy to support and prioritize the use of made-in-Canada low-carbon products in public and private infrastructure projects.”

Not only does this make good economic sense, but it is also a political win-win. All three major parties included Buy Clean in their election platforms. Keeping high-paying jobs in Canada that will also help us meet our climate goals must be a top priority for the re-elected government—something that resonates across the political spectrum.

Canadians are also on board, according to recent polling undertaken by Nanos Research for Blue Green Canada. The poll found that 73 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support requiring Canadian taxpayer-funded projects to buy construction materials from low-carbon manufacturers. Not only that, but 77 per cent said they believe it would be worthwhile or somewhat worthwhile to require cleaner construction materials even if it increased the total cost of the project.

Canada should act quickly for three reasons. First, the energy transition is accelerating—90 per cent of global GDP is now covered by a net-zero target, up from 60 per cent in March, providing Canada a golden opportunity to leverage its low-carbon advantages. With an 83 per cent emissions-free electricity grid our industries manufacture some of the cleanest products in the world

The carbon emissions of steel produced in Canada is six times lower than that produced in China. Canadian aluminum has the lowest carbon intensity in the world. And the Canadian cement industry has significantly improved energy efficiency and is on track to reduce emissions by a further 40 per cent by 2030. 

Canada also has abundant timber products, but upwards of 60 per cent of materials are shipped abroad where they are turned into higher value products. With proper incentives, sustainably harvested domestic lumber could reduce transportation emissions while creating well-paid jobs in Canada.

Second, Buy Clean rewards industries for carbon-cutting investments and improves competitiveness for Canada’s exports. Manufacturers, and their financiers, will have more confidence investing in breakthrough low-carbon technologies in the knowledge that a domestic market exists for their products. And with the EU and U.S. contemplating border carbon adjustments—essentially taxes on carbon-intensive imports—this investment is key if we want to keep doing business with our largest trading partners.

Third, Canada already has a strong foundation for a national Buy Clean strategy. The Greening Government Strategy has set targets to reduce carbon emissions in federal procurement, and from 2022 will start to require bidders to disclose their life-cycle emissions. The National Research Council is leading a project to develop a life-cycle inventory database that will provide important data and tools for companies and procurement agencies. And Canada was one of several countries, including India, Germany and the U.K., to commit to procuring low-carbon steel and cement at COP26 in Glasgow. 

While the government is off to a promising start, it must now accelerate and expand on these existing efforts, including convening a cross-departmental working group to work with other levels of government, industry, labour and civil society towards the development of a national Buy Clean strategy. It must also work with the U.S. and other international partners to align approaches on Buy Clean data, reporting and standards.  

Leveraging Canada’s low-carbon advantage is a clear win for workers, industry and the environment. Now we need policy action to make sure we can keep good jobs in Canada as we strive to meet our climate targets.

This post was co-authored by Sarah Petrevan and originally appeared in iPolitics.

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