Residents of Fort McMurray, the urban centre of Alberta’s oilsands, are now returning to the aftermath of what will surely be Canada’s costliest wildfire. While drawing a direct line between our daily carbon-emitting actions and tragedies like the Fort McMurray wildfire is difficult, it does not take a heroic leap of logic to assert that maintaining our status quo lifestyles with a business-as-usual economy will result in “natural” disasters far worse than what Alberta has recently experienced. I think now is an opportune time to reflect on what to do about climate change.
Much of our current thinking on energy and climate systems is based on the past. It assumes that what has happened in the past will likely happen again. This may still be true for many things; however, if we are going to drastically reduce carbon emissions, the past may not be the best exemplar.
Consider the limits in our current approach to energy forecasting. The consistent ability for the US Energy Information Administration or the International Energy Agency to over-predict fossil fuel use and under-predict renewable energy deployment based on historical data has serious implications on investment decisions, government policies, and ultimately our ability to address climate change.
In contrast, back casting or reverse engineering from an ideal future state(s) approaches the present not from the past but from the future. This provides a completely different path forward. It uses a logic that is different from the one that got us into this situation. Ideally, a renewed vision of the future can motivate the necessary transformations in our economy, which can limit number of wildfires, hurricanes, and displaced people that climate change is already creating.
Thankfully, increasing numbers of cities and provinces are now looking forward and putting in place the tools and mechanisms to chart a different course. In Alberta, the implementation bill for the ambitious climate plan that was announced last October is being debated. Ontario has just passed cap-and-trade legislation and will be soon be releasing details of a new climate plan. A draft version of Ontario’s plan was leaked recently and provides a foretaste of what to expect from Premier Wynne’s government (spoiler alert: lots of electric cars and more efficient home heating). Quebec has just tabled legislation that requires automakers to meet electric vehicle sales targets by 2025. Meanwhile, Ottawa is making significant headway on a coherent national climate policy with legislation likely within a year.
Today’s politicians who aspire to be climate leaders must learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. Thankfully Canada’s climate and energy policy history provides no shortage of teachable moments. Ontario’s Green Energy and Green Economy Act of 2009 poisoned the well for many wind energy projects in the province. Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government failed Planning 101 when they reduced the ability for many communities to provide substantive input into the siting of renewable energy facilities.
To the delight of journalists, opposition parties, and defenders of the status quo, more mistakes on climate policy will be made. Unfortunately, the world cannot wait for policy perfection. Nor can it hope that incremental change will solve this problem. Instead, we must envision the future and determine what needs to be done to get there. This model is different from the standard tweak-it-a-little approach to governance.
This bigger picture thinking is undoubtedly motivating provincial leaders in Alberta, Ontario and Québec. A recently leaked study from the Government of Canada envisions that “a new electricity-based industrial ecosystem could emerge at a much faster rate than expected, significantly disrupting fossil-fuel markets.” Imagine the implications if this actually came to pass.
Rather than simply deny that possibility and carry on, leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors ought to look to the future and creatively think how they can take advantage of this incredible opportunity. What about never paying heating bills again (because each home or business produces its own energy)? What about never paying for gasoline (because we all have electric cars)? What about cutting your commute time in half (because of affordable high-speed commuter rail)? What about finding a new competitive edge for your business (because addressing climate change is disrupting the traditional economy)?
The Fort McMurray wildfire has raised the stakes for climate action in Canada. It symbolizes, among many things, the goodwill of many Canadians to support survivors, but also the cost of policy inaction. Rallying together around ambitious climate policies will be necessary (although not sufficient) for these initiatives to succeed. Instead of looking wistfully at the past, critics of these most recent climate policies should consider the future, understand that mistakes will happen, and rest assured that effective, and arguably legitimate, climate policies can benefit from their critiques.