If the Liberals fall, Canadians may experience a deeply fragmented energy future

Photo by: Mike W. via Flickr (License: CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Canmore, Alta., and Golden, B.C., are less than two hours apart. Both are scenic mountain towns, and one can imagine their residents live relatively similar lives. But when it comes to the question of energy, the citizens of these provincial border communities – like many across Canada – have vastly different relationships with energy.

And far from finding common ground, those differences could soon grow even more extreme, bringing about implications for affordability and economic development.

Since 2016, the federal government has covered 80% of the costs of combatting climate change in Canada, despite holding the purse strings on only 20% of all public spending. If the Liberal government falls next year, as current polls suggest, living in different provinces could soon feel more like living in different countries, at least when it comes to one’s experience with energy.

Consider the past few years. After Ontario scrapped its provincial electric-vehicle purchase rebate, Ottawa stepped in with a nationwide incentive to even the playing field for all Canadians. Similar stories could be told around heat pump programs, the federal government’s requirement for automakers to improve EV availability across the country, its regulations to clean up our electricity system, and yes, the carbon price and rebate. Combined, these nation-building efforts are intended to get the country rowing in a common direction.

There’s a real risk the oars are about to slip off. And if the boat starts to drift, Canadians will be reminded that energy, affordability and economic development have always been largely provincial responsibilities.

This spring, Clean Energy Canada evaluated each province’s progress toward building a sustainable economy, and what we found was a country of leaders and laggards. We assessed everything from macro-level policies such as electricity planning to household measures such as rebates for EVs and heat pumps that enable residents to save money and cut climate pollution. And while some provinces are actively building more resilient futures, others have largely ceded that responsibility to the federal government – or outright resisted it.

There are bright spots. Quebec was the only province to earn an overall A grade on our scorecard thanks to its clean electricity ambitions and investments in clean industries such as EV batteries, while British Columbia, a leader in EV adoption and energy efficiency, came in second with a B. Indeed, the policies pioneered in these provinces, once focused on emissions, are now yielding affordability benefits for families and business opportunities for new and old industries alike.

At the other end of the rankings, certain Prairie provinces are failing to live up to their potential. Alberta and Saskatchewan could have the fastest-growing clean-energy sectors in the country, but Alberta’s D grade reflects its lack of action – and even aggression – toward this opportunity. Despite being the wind and solar capital of Canada, the province has imposed restrictions on renewables development, a recent move that’s already scaring off investment in Alberta. Earlier this month, TransAlta cancelled one renewables project in the province and put another three on hold, citing these changes.

In contrast with Alberta, Progressive Conservative-led Ontario received good grades for its industrial strategy after making big moves to expand its EV supply chain. While Canada’s most populous province has room for improvement elsewhere, Premier Doug Ford is clearly seizing an opportunity while Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is putting up roadblocks.

Beyond Canada’s industries, the fragmentation of our energy reality can be felt on our streets. EVs made up 19% of new car sales in Quebec last year compared with 7% next door in Ontario, and while it would be easy to chalk this divergence up to provincial choice, we don’t choose the world we live in.

The simple reality is that whatever provinces do or don’t do over the next few years, the global economy, energy prices, technology curves and our climate will change with or without provincial consent – and the trajectory is quite clear. Portions of the country could find themselves playing catch-up in a future they didn’t plan for, losing out on economic opportunities while paying more for energy.

Unless, of course, provincial governments realize that their higher purpose isn’t to fight the feds. It is, as it’s always been, to seek safety, prosperity and affordability for their citizens in a sea of change.

This post was co-authored by Mark Zacharias and originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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