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Canada Needs to Take a Sober Second Look at Our Energy Policies and Practices

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This would be a great time in our history to have an "easy" button. Click: reduced dependency on carbon fuels. Click: profitable green energy economy up and running.

Unfortunately, transformation does not come that easily. Mounting evidence shows us that the transition to a renewable fuel future will be a long one. We are, as Vaclav Smil said recently with sobering honesty, at least 20 and maybe 30 years away from achieving it. In his words, the world is a "fundamentally fossil fuel society." Even wind turbines represent the "pure embodiment of fossil fuels," because of all the steel and plastic required to build them.

In one sense, we are fortunate to have this time. Growing demand for fossil fuels in Asia represents an enormous opportunity for us to continue to market our fossil fuels and commodities for a few more decades. Our energy industry now outsells the auto industry in terms of export revenues. Without these sales, Canada would be a much poorer country and many fewer Canadians would be enjoying the standard of living we have come to take for granted.

But how long can we count on these markets? China is currently the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels and India is rapidly exploring its own shale gas potential. Perhaps more importantly, we may yet lose the international public relations campaign against Canda's "dirty oil," not to mention our position as an "ethical" producing region given our own profligate use of fuels. Canadians are among the most energy intensive consumers in the world. How long will it be before purchasers demand we clean up our own act in order to earn the right to offload fossil fuels on other countries? We may very well run out of markets long before we run out of oil, gas, and hydroelectric reserves.

Canada needs to take a sober second look at our energy policies and practices. A prosperous, principled and abundant future beckons, but only if we join together to form a national energy consensus that galvanizes our whole nation to become famous world-wide for our expertise in energy productivity and our excellence in both renewable and carbon-based technologies.

Along with 12 regional governments, hundreds of First Nations, more than 1,000 municipalities, countless industry associations and a broad swath of civil society, the federal government has an important role to play.

The first step is to help pull a national energy consensus together. To that end, the ministers of energy and mines have met for the purpose, they say, of "Framing the Future of Energy." Many of us are anticipating that the ministers will usher in a new age of collaboration, seeking to lay out the the terms of engagement for moving forward.

Their newly released Action Plan promises just that -- though that's about all it does. It lays out a plan for collaboration, including principles and objectives toward a shared vision, but consensus is not well established. All of the priorities for action remain voluntary and are subject to further agreements that remain 'under development' and to which the provinces and territories 'could' agree at some future date - conditional language, indeed.

Still, we have some solid precedents for collaboration amongst regions. Alberta's Minister Ron Liepert is a leading exponent of this approach, including his role in the New West Partnership that Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan launched last year.

Most notably, the three partners pledged to "treat each other as valued and respected partners," (see clause IV(1) of their International Trade Agreement). If Mr. Liepert can persuade his ministerial colleagues to come to a similar agreement, Canada will be well served. We trust that Mr. Oliver, the federal minister, will fall in with this plan.

Alberta has other precedents to offer. The Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC), for example, is dedicated to funding new technologies that will green all our operations. It receives its money from a levy on large GHG emitters that have failed to cut their emissions, but every project is cost-shared with private sector proponents. Although some have argued that the CCEMC is merely letting resource industries buy their way out of an emissions reduction program, it is nevertheless helping to galvanize Alberta's corporations into finding long-term solutions that will benefit both Canada and the world. The federal government needs to recognize this program when it imposes GHG regulations on the petroleum and electricity industries.

The federal government has precedents of its own. It established Carbon Management Canada (CMC), a national centre of excellence devoted to research and development of new green technologies and practices. Other partners include the Alberta government and seven resource corporations. This knowledge network is an excellent example of a collaborative effort designed to galvanize our nation into becoming one of the world's most energy productive countries.

The federal government could expand on its centres of excellence programs to focus on other areas of energy productivity. It already operates the Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE), one of the only databases in Canada to gather user information, including energy intensity in all three sectors--industrial, commercial/institutional and residential. What the OEE lacks, however, is robust, long-term funding and the mandate to champion a national, collaborative effort amongst all Canadians to increase energy productivity in every endeavour. Given the right support and motivation, the OEE could become a global centre for energy productivity -- a crucible for accelerating innovation to transform our country's operational performance, and an inspiration for peoples all around the world.

The bottom line is this: to transform ourselves into a green economy, we will be challenged to find many new ways of satisfying our needs for mobility, comfortable living spaces, safe workplaces and an ever expanding array of digital devices. Think of it this way -- it's not an "easy" button we're looking to buy, but a whole series of new apps that can transform our lives.

But then, remember how much fun you had the last time you visited the apps store? That's what lies ahead of us. With the right spirit of collaboration and a sense of joyful discovery, not only could we enjoy ourselves along the way, we could even get rich!


Elaine McCoy has been sitting in the Senate as an independent Progressive Conservative Senator from Alberta since 2005. She previously worked as a lawyer and was the former Labour Minister in Alberta's Getty government. She regularly blogs about her experiences in Ottawa at www.albertasenator.ca

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