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Illustration by Clayton Junior

Talking about a “national energy strategy” is very much in vogue these days, almost the way we talked about “climate change strategies” for the first decade of the new millennium. Industry associations, provinces, think tanks, unions, energy companies, non-governmental organizations – all are calling for a cross-country approach to managing and transitioning our energy system. But, can we move these conversations to practical action? What will it really take to make the necessary transitions in how we produce energy and consume energy services?

To start with, we need a coherent vision of what we, as a nation, want to be when we grow up given our world-scale abundance of energy resources.

Last year, environmental action group Tides Canada conducted a series of workshops resulting in a document called “A New Energy Vision for Canada.” It outlines the broadly accepted vision for a national energy strategy that:

• Provides accessible, fair and efficient energy services to citizens with minimal risk to future generations;

• Leverages our considerable renewable resources and existing institutions to increase our share of the global market for low-carbon goods and services, spurring new jobs, investment and innovations;

• Reduces the risk of climate disruption by lowering carbon emissions to a level, and at a pace, recommended by the global scientific community;

• Protects and restores air, land and water resources by setting hard caps on cumulative ecosystem and atmospheric impacts; and

• Encourages local stewardship over low-carbon energy production and resources.

 Though there is no shortage of chatter about the shape and scope of a Canadian energy strategy, these are really the minimum specifications of any plan, provincially or nationwide, that could set us up for truly long-term prosperity by sparking an incredible wave of innovation.

Even with a national vision, however, it is the provinces that hold the jurisdictional power and responsibility to deliver. And the biggest mistake our provinces could make is to focus on “resource development” as opposed to focusing on the “energy services” we need. To state it bluntly, people don’t really care about energy resources; we care about the services they bring us, such as mobility, light, warm homes, electronics and cold beer. These desired services won’t change much, but the resources that make them possible will.

Take mobility. During the preceding century, petroleum overwhelmingly provided this service. We continue to use barrels of oil as a metric of future energy demand and often point to the growing demand for oil in China. But China does not really care about oil; it cares about mobility. If and when that economy can provide its people with mobility by another means that is cheaper, cleaner, domestically produced, more accessible and higher performance, it will do so rather quickly. In other words, meet the electric car.

Today, Canada is a powerhouse in the last century’s dominant energy currency. But as times change we need to adapt and be positioned to be a competitive player in this century’s emerging energy technologies. This means each province must ask itself: How are we going to compete in an “energy-technology” focused global economy? Where should we start?

Different priorities will exist for each province, but across the country each should focus on: pricing pollution, steadily reducing limits on total pollution, properly valuing the benefits of renewable energy, and investing in energy efficiency.

First, each province should put a fiscal incentive in place to reduce and eventually eliminate environmental impacts. Translation: tax carbon. Look to British Columbia for a strong model to build from. Use the levies from pollution to reduce income taxes, protect low-income energy consumers and further invest in energy efficiency. The sooner each province sends the signal that it costs to pollute our environment, the faster we will innovate and implement cleaner solutions.

Next, impose progressively stricter pollution standards on all sources of energy-related emissions. Use these performance-based standards to drive innovation that will in turn purge pollution from the energy sector. A good example is regulations on coal power plants – regulations that force utilities to either eliminate emissions or shut the plants down. For my home province of Alberta, the priority should be setting scientifically informed limits on total cumulative environmental impacts of the oil sands.

Finally, provinces should use a combination of standards, incentives, pricing, community planning and education to capitalize on the incredible opportunities in energy efficiency across all energy services – home heating, mobility, entertainment, and more. Look to Manitoba for a portfolio of leading efforts on energy efficiency.

Each province can tweak these actions to suit its particular political realities but if we Canadians want our fair share of the rapidly growing trillion-dollar cleantech sector, we need to act like the future matters to us. As global population grows, resource constraints increase and pollution threatens us all, one thing is certain: societies that create and market clean energy solutions will thrive. This is our best chance to make a positive contribution to global challenges, and along the way regain respect on the world stage.

Marlo Raynolds is a senior advisor to the Tides Canada Energy Initiative and the Pembina Institute (pembina.org). He is currently living in France on a sabbatical. This article represents his views and not necessarily those of any organization to which he is associated.

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