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How Canada Can Lead on Clean Energy

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The hand-drawn sign in the photograph is fashioned from a circle of cardboard, and features a three-bladed wind turbine and the words "let's go." We can see a pair of hands grasping the sign, but not the person holding it -- who appears to be standing on some sort of gantry or catwalk. Behind him or her, in the background, is a petroleum upgrading facility.

"I am an oilsands worker, and risked my job to take this picture," says the caption on the image, which was taken in support of a recent global climate-change campaign, and which is now going viral on the web. "Myself, along with the majority of my co-workers are ready for a renewable energy revolution."

It is an arresting image, capturing a quiet act of dissent and call for change direct from the roaring industrial heart of northern Alberta. What makes it even more poignant is the fact that the revolution the anonymous oil worker calls for is already underway.

Canada just hasn't yet shown up.

A Bloomberg New Energy Finance report released last month reveals that worldwide clean energy investment continued a near-decade-long rally in 2011, rising 6.5 per cent to a record $263 billion. Last year, global investments in electricity for renewable electricity generation outpaced those of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

Canada increased its share of clean-energy investment in 2011, Bloomberg notes, boosting its stake by 4.4. per cent to $5.5 billion -- largely the result of provincial policies such as the Green Energy and Economy Act, which is driving wind and solar build-out in Ontario.

But our country does not even crack the top 10 of G20 economies investing in the energy of the future. While others jockey for leadership spots in the ongoing global shift to energy that is clean, renewable, abundant, and largely locally available, we are trailing the pack behind Brazil and Spain.

It doesn't have to be this way. Canada can and must leverage its oil wealth to ensure our country remains competitive in a world that is working to dramatically reduce its appetite for our fossil-fuel resources. By 2020, the global market for low-carbon goods and services is expected to crest two trillion dollars.

As an increasingly polarized pipeline debate dominates the airwaves and headlines, one common thread emerges: Canada needs a plan to capture a larger share of this new clean energy opportunity, and accelerate our transition to an efficient, prosperous low-carbon economy. More and more organizations, sectors, and leaders are calling for a more responsible and truly long-term approach to energy development and job creation.

Earlier this week, Canada's environment commissioner confirmed that the federal government has no real plan to meet its Copenhagen Accord commitment. We agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that will, at minimum, limit global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level. Now it is time to make good, and a Canadian energy strategy represents our best opportunity to do so.

Over recent months, my team has traveled the country, consulting with a wide range of environmental, business, academic, faith, and health leaders. They all told us the same thing: Any Canadian energy strategy must recognize that the world is changing rapidly around us. We either put in policies such as this that allow us to slowly but surely reinvent our economy for clean energy future, or face profound uncertainty and risk.

Speaking on behalf of his colleagues, the anonymous oil worker who bravely posted his snapshot on Flickr perhaps said it best: "We want jobs that provide long term economic, social and environmental sustainability for ourselves, our country and our planet."

A plan to do so is within reach. Let's go.