For those who grew up in the ’80s, the three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — are seared into our brains. Grocery stores suddenly had bulk bins to reduce wasteful packaging. Arts and crafts time was all about reusing things otherwise destined for the garbage bin.
In the face of an economic shock unlike anything modern society has ever experienced, perhaps it’s time for three new Rs: relief, recovery and resilience.
The first thing Canadians need? Relief, and fast. But what about those next steps, recovery and resilience?
While it may be tempting to try to rebuild the past, we must be realistic and build for the present and the future. As clean-tech investor Tom Rand writes in his new book, The Case for Climate Capitalism, “looking in the rearview mirror is not the best way to gauge where you’re going.”
Case in point is the question of how we produce and consume energy — and the role it plays in our economy. While certain politicians and pundits have argued the coronavirus is a reason to slow down our energy transition (opinions they held before the pandemic), the opposite is true.
The stark reality is that Canada’s traditionally strong oil and gas sector is confronted with both cyclical and structural change. It will never return to its halcyon boom days of the early 2000s. We need to shift from a mantra of “no barrel left behind” to one in which no oil worker or region is left behind. And we need to reorient and rebuild our energy sector with a focus on clean energy.
The good news? This can be done in ways that leverage the oilpatch’s core competencies (drilling, petrochemistry) toward new products, from carbon fibre to lithium to hydrogen.
As International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol recently put it, “rather than compounding the (coronavirus) tragedy by allowing it to hinder clean energy transitions, we need to seize the opportunity to help accelerate them.”
In other words, governments should aim stimulus at the economy they want: one with less pollution and more resilience.
To that end, industry and non-profit leaders representing Canada’s clean energy sector—including renewable power, energy efficiency, cleantech, advanced biofuels and electric transportation—have submitted an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau calling on the federal government to introduce clean-energy-focused stimulus in order to build a better, more resilient economy.
Canada’s clean energy sector is already part of our economic engine, employing 300,000 Canadians in 2017. Federal and provincial climate and clean energy policies, if followed through on, stand to swell that number to 560,000 jobs by 2030 — jobs insulating homes, manufacturing electric buses, operating hydro dams, building and maintaining wind farms.
"Governments should aim stimulus at the economy they want: one with less pollution and more resilience. Investing in people and projects that advance the clean energy transition is how we build a resilient economy."
And yet it’s a number that could be even higher. The transition to clean energy is where the growth opportunity lies — and this growth could increase in scope and scale with added government stimulus. So where to direct it?
To start, renewable power sources, energy storage and transmission lines. More public transit, walking paths and bike lanes. Clean fuel and renewable gas plants that draw on waste streams from forestry, agriculture and municipal garbage. Electric vehicle charging stations and a domestic zero-emission transportation industry that already spans buses, trucks, cars and ferries. Energy efficient homes, buildings and factories.
And for all this building, let’s use Canadian-made, low-carbon concrete and steel, or sustainably produced mass timber. Let’s use the metals and minerals abundant in Canada in those wind turbines, solar panels and batteries.
To build this workforce, we need support for training and retraining Canadians whose past jobs may not return. Many of these programs can and should start while unemployed workers are sitting at home.
Investing in people and projects that advance the clean energy transition is how we build a resilient economy. It’s how we build the economy we want.
There’s another R word we would do well to remember: reactive. The world is wondering what would have happened if we took more proactive measures to stem the coronavirus.
There’s a lesson here. For our economy and the energy system that fuels it, planning for change, rather than reacting to it, will leave us all better off.