The unstoppable support behind the green transition

Recognition that a massive transition is now is spreading like wildfire. The feds should take note.

wind turbines

You would need a pretty big tent to hold all those who back a green transition in Canada today.

In fact, environmentalists might find themselves crowded into one small corner as mining and cement companies, labour unions, farmers, school teachers, doctors and nurses, and engineers join in to extoll the virtues of a shift to a low-carbon economy. This astonishing depth and breadth of support for a public policy is unusual, and the federal government should take note as it considers what measures to announce, in September’s throne speech, to build the post-COVID economic recovery.

Significantly, even the staunchest defender of the fossil fuel economy – Alberta Premier Jason Kenney – bluntly acknowledges, “I have a firm grasp of the obvious. There is no reasonable person that can deny that in the decades to come we will see a gradual shift from hydrocarbon-based energy to other forms of energy.” What Kenney sees as gradual others see as quickly accelerating. An increasing number of major investors, from the trillion-dollar Norwegian sovereign wealth fund to private capital titan BlackRock, are pulling their money out of fossil fuels. And these are not altruistic gestures: returns from oil and gas investments were already miserable before COVID hit. Oil stocks have been the worst-performing sector on U.S. stock markets for the past decade.

The popularity of the Liberal promise to strengthen action on climate change helped Justin Trudeau eke out a victory in the last election, with a strong majority of voters casting their ballots for parties that supported carbon pricing and strong action on climate change. That support persists: a 2019 Abacus Data poll found that 61% of Canadians support a Green New Deal, what the pollsters described as “a massive government jobs program and investment in clean energy, green technology, and electrification.” That support extends to people in Alberta too. A whopping 79% of the province’s residents think it should transition to renewable energy, and half believe it is time to fully transition away from oil and gas.

The Green Recovery tent is crowded for good reason: the economic and health benefits of moving to renewable energy, less wasteful goods and services, and fewer plastics and toxics are simply too big to ignore. As a coalition of health organizations noted, “The consequences [of climate change] will be even more devastating and irreversible if ambitious policies are not put in place quickly … Ignoring the growing stress on our public health system and its workers as a result of climate change is simply not a viable option.”

Meanwhile, an Ontario study found that had the province stuck to its plan to collect revenue from big polluters and spend it on building retrofits, it could have generated 24,500 to 32,900 jobs over five years. In addition, a further 16,800 to 24,000 jobs could have been created from the reinvestments of energy cost savings into the economy. Those numbers sound even better in our current straitened economic circumstances.

For labour, the transition to a green economy is an ideal way to link powerful job-creation arguments to the carbon reduction imperative. As the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership between major labour unions and environmental and health organizations, points out, “We must begin to plan now for well-managed and inclusive transitions to a low carbon future. This starts by talking with people about what a fair, green future economy looks like, including communities and workers that have been historically disadvantaged, union members, and precarious workers in Canada.” In order to make good on this promising future, Canada needs to move fast to catch up to jurisdictions like Germany that are already developing innovative plans for new approaches like hydrogen.

Farmers, too, understand the need to get off the money-sucking conveyor belt of fossil-fuel-dependent agriculture. Farmers for Climate Solutions notes that “the agriculture sector is also responsible for 12% of Canada’s greenhouse emissions. Most of these emissions result from high-input, high-emissions farming practices that rely heavily on fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides, plastics, and other inputs. These same inputs are costly and make it harder for farmers to turn a profit.” The group’s calculations show clearly that more sustainable farming practices can not only help farmers get off this cost escalator, but also contribute to storing carbon in healthier soils.

As they struggle with the increasing impacts of extreme heat and flooding, hundreds of municipalities across Canada have passed “climate emergency” declarations. From Smithers to St. John’s, cities are calling for new low-carbon approaches to drive their economies and reduce infrastructure damage.

Even one of Canada’s biggest resource companies is on board with the need for dramatic action on climate. Earlier this year, Teck Resources announced a goal of achieving carbon neutrality in its operations by 2050.

Though the existential threat of climate change is unprecedented, the support for ambitious approaches to solving the problem now reaches into every corner of our society. With a new global temperature record set in July, recognition that a massive transition is needed – and needed now – is spreading like wildfire. Governments often do lots of controversial things: leading Canadians in a rapid green transition is not one of them.

Rick Smith is executive director of the Broadbent Institute and co-author of two bestselling books on the human health effects of pollution.


Note: An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly described Teck Resources as one of the Canada’s biggest oil sands miners. Teck has a minority (21.3%) ownership stake in one oil sands operation, the Fort Hills oil sands mine, and no other operating oil sands assets. Teck’s major business units focusing on copper, zinc and steelmaking coal, with active operations and projects in Canada, Chile and the U.S.

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