As global leaders convene in Glasgow for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), momentum for climate action is at an all-time high. Last summer’s report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscored again the urgency to act. [1] And the International Energy Agency released a study last spring laying out a proposed pathway to global net zero GHG emissions by 2050. [2]

Here in Canada, we are at a hinge point on energy and climate: there is far greater consensus among Canadians, governments and industry about the need to reduce emissions, and there are myriad opportunities for Canadian energy in domestic and global markets. 

Canada now has a carbon tax that applies across the country, has put in place a comprehensive climate plan [3]– including ambitious targets for methane, clean fuels and electric vehicles, and strategies for hydrogen, small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), energy storage, critical minerals and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) – and has legislated net zero by 2050. [4]

The country has made great progress laying the groundwork to bend our emissions curve downwards and capitalize on our energy potential.

But Canada has a long history of making ambitious climate commitments then failing miserably at achieving them. Last spring the government boosted Canada’s climate targets from a 30% reduction of 2005 levels by 2030 to a 40-45% reduction. But emissions haven’t budged in the last fifteen years: they were the same in 2019 as they were in 2005. 

This has not gone unnoticed by Canadians. Recent polling by the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy program and Nanos Research reveals that Canadians’ desire for climate action has surged throughout the pandemic, but most have little confidence that Canada can actually reduce emissions. [5] They see government as part of the problem – not the solution. 

Will now be any different? 

Maybe. 

Success will hinge on whether Canada can successfully move from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’ on climate. 

Modelling suggests the government’s new targets are likely achievable [6], but there is an enormous gap between the simulated worlds of emissions and macroeconomic impacts and the real worlds of politics, federal-provincial relations, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, investor confidence, energy security, and oil and gas production. This is where the rubber meets the road on energy and climate. 

What actions are needed to move successfully from the what to the how? 

First and foremost, focus on implementation. Implementation is the ‘dismal science’ of public administration. The title of a landmark American book on implementation in the 1980s sums it up well: Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland.[7] More recently, eminent political scientist Francis Fukuyama lamented that policy schools are failing society because they train students to conduct policy analysis but don’t teach them how to implement policy in the real world. [8] 

Canada has a persistent implementation blind spot on energy and climate. Take infrastructure projects. Climate plans depend on the rapid development and widespread deployment of lower emitting energy sources and technologies like solar, wind, hydro, nuclear power, CCUS, and hydrogen, along with mining operations for critical minerals. 

Will communities support building all this new infrastructure? Maybe. But it takes time to foster local support, and support increasingly hinges on building successful partnerships with Indigenous communities. This rarely happens on the rapid timelines envisaged in climate plans and models. Most major projects take a decade or more (i.e., beyond 2030) to plan, finance and permit, much less build. 

Which brings us to the second action item: expand the focus on technological innovation to institutional innovation. Technological solutions to energy and climate challenges will be crucial, but so too will be institutional innovation to support technology adoption, deployment and scale-up. This means policy and regulatory systems that support emissions reductions, innovation and new technologies, and that secure the confidence of innovators, investors and communities alike. Decision systems need to strike a workable balance between economic, social and environmental imperatives that stands the test of time. 

Third, integrate energy and climate policy. Climate and energy policy and the surrounding policy/expert communities exist in silos. This can lead to a lot of needless friction and missed opportunities to align energy and climate objectives. Take energy security. Reliable affordable energy will be essential to building and maintaining public, industry and political support for emissions reductions, but climate plans tend to overlook energy availability/reliability and affordability. Without energy security, ongoing support for emissions reduction will be difficult to maintain. Integrated policy approaches are key. 

Fourth, make collaboration the cornerstone of energy and climate action. This is key for innovation. Canada rarely has the pipelines of collaboration needed to move ideas from the lab bench to start-up to scale-up to widespread deployment. This is a big weakness that hamstrings rapid effective action. We need deep strategic collaboration between federal, provincial-territorial, municipal and Indigenous governments, academia, industry, and civil society. 

Finally, Canada needs a robust policy discussion about the role of oil and gas in the country’s energy and climate future. This will be especially important given the Liberal Party’s election commitment to net zero by 2050 in the oil and gas sector. [9]This aligns with industry objectives, notably the Oilsands Pathways to Net Zero initiative. [10] But debates over oil and gas in Canada tend to be polarized and simplistic, even though these resources will continue to be produced globally for decades to come (the IEA net zero report sees oil production at 24 million barrels per day in 2050 and natural gas at 1,750 billion cubic metres). Canada has struggled to articulate a short- and long-term role for the oil and gas sector in domestic and international energy markets. 

At long last, Canada is poised for change on energy and climate – it may finally be possible to achieve ongoing progress on emissions reductions and capitalize on the country’s vast energy potential. Moving from the what to the how will be pivotal to realizing the country’s energy and climate potential. 

1- https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-i/

2-https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-by-2050

3- https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/eccc/documents/pdf/climate-change/climate-plan/healthy_environment_healthy_economy_plan.pdf

4- https://www.canada.ca/en/services/environment/weather/climatechange/climate-plan/net-zero-emissions-2050/canadian-net-zero-emissions-accountability-act.html

5- https://www.macleans.ca/society/environment/the-urgency-to-act-on-climate-is-surging-in-canada/

6 – https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/septembe-2021/assessing-climate-sincerity-in-the-canadian-2021-election/

7- https://www.amazon.ca/Implementation-Expectations-Development-Administration-Sympathetic/dp/0520053311

8- https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/08/01/whats-wrong-with-public-policy-education/

9 – https://liberal.ca/our-platform/cap-and-cut-emissions-from-oil-and-gas/

10 – https://www.oilsandspathways.ca/