Climate Solutions Are Gaining Ground. Now It’s Time to Scale Up.
Governments, investors, and project managers are finally pivoting from ‘what’ to do to ‘how’ we get it done. But we need more of everything—policy, finance, training, and results—and we need it now.
The last 10 days have been a living lesson on the twists, turns, and complexities of turning big-picture climate promises into real results, with the federal government launching into a flurry of new legislation and two separate conferences digging into the granular details of getting decarbonization done.
The Canadian Sustainable Jobs Act, Bill C-50, introduced Thursday by Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, doesn’t include any specific job creation efforts—those showed up in the government’s Fall, 2022 economic statement, which earmarked $250 million over five years for sustainable jobs. This week’s bill sets out to cement earlier commitments to a Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council, a Sustainable Jobs Secretariat, and a mandate for Ottawa to publish a sustainable jobs plan every five years—all meant to build the future labour force for Canada’s clean energy sector.
From the other end of the spectrum, in the days leading up to Wilkinson’s more systems-oriented announcement, a clean energy finance event in Toronto and an energy retrofit conference in Montreal looked at how to clear the front-line obstacles and bottlenecks impeding the energy transition. For the finance crowd, it was about rapidly scaling up private project financing from billions to trillions of dollars and democratizing clean energy investment so that regular folk, not just institutional investors, can put some cold, hard cash behind our values. The retrofit conference talked about building the clean energy work force we need right now, establishing a steady stream of projects for workers to train into, and clearing regulatory hurdles and information gaps that impede progress.
It's a heady mix of top-down and bottom-up action, and it’s all happening against a backdrop of heightened urgency. There’s been a drumbeat of polling and inside-the-bubble speculation suggesting the Trudeau government won’t easily survive another election, raising the obvious fear that its successor will be hostile to a climate and energy transition that is finally picking up momentum.
Coming Soon: A Cascade of Announcements
But first, we’re about to see a cascade of make-or-break federal announcements that have been in development for years and represent the current government’s best shot at setting up emission reductions by 2030, 2035, and beyond. In addition to the jobs strategy, greatest hits to watch for this summer and fall include:
• A set of Clean Electricity Regulations, aimed at delivering a reliable, net-zero power grid by 2035;
• A long-delayed Clean Fuel Regulation designed to drive down the emissions intensity of gasoline and diesel fuel;
• The Canada Green Buildings Strategy, which was due for release this month and has become a focus for advocacy on energy access for lower-income households;
• A new framework on fossil fuel subsidies that Ottawa is expected to release this month or next;
• Sen. Rosa Galvez’ proposed Climate-Aligned Finance Act, Bill S-243, which is finally due for a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee after a timely boost from MP Ryan Turnbull’s Motion 84 in the House of Commons. (Neither of these is a government initiative, but they rate an honourable mention for filling in an essential piece of the bigger picture.)
If you think your head is spinning now, just wait until all of these legislative and other initiatives are all in play at once, each with its own set of acronyms, idiosyncrasies, and mandatory idiocies from fossil fuel lobbyists trying to slow down the transition at every turn.
But all of that activity is still just one half of the progress we’ll need to move from what to how—from setting the frame for faster, deeper carbon cuts to actually getting them done. It’s essential that the federal government show leadership through policy and legislation, and it would be nice if more provinces stepped up, too. But it’s just as important to get at the practical, front-line barriers and bottlenecks that will have to be cleared before governments, investors, industries, or anyone else can deliver real-world results.
Democratizing Clean Energy Finance
The first-ever Canadian Climate Investor Conference in Toronto, hosted by Vancouver-based RE Royalties, featured 16 small cleantech companies, each of them delivering a 15-minute pitch to potential funding sources. Much of the talk was about scaling up investment quickly enough to meet ambitious climate targets and opening up the whole process to households and individual investors. But not before RE Royalties CEO Bernard Tan and sustainable finance advisor Tim Nash connected the dots between the clean energy industries and the rash of wildfires that had been sending local air pollution readings off the charts.
“We’ve all seen the air quality outside the last few days,” Nash said, just a day after PM 2.5 levels here in Ottawa maxed out at 511 parts per million. “Climate change has never been more top of mind,” and “the time is now to have these conversations about building the economy that so many of us want.”
Compared to the huge solar and wind developers that usually make the news, the firms at this conference ranged in size from small to microscopic—there’s a reason they’re called “small cap”. A couple of them didn’t seem quite ready for prime time, and it’s a sure bet that not all will survive to deliver on their ambitious plans.
But the conference was still a good snapshot of what it will take to generate the level of investment to deliver on the emission reduction pledges we’ve been hearing, from governments and business alike. Tan and Michael Kousaie, vice-president, strategy and product innovation at the TMX Group (that’s ‘TMX’ as in the Toronto and Montreal stock exchanges, not the pipeline that goes by the same acronym), estimated that activity in the trillions of dollars, not billions, through the middle of this century.
To get that level of investment in place, “we need majors,” Tan told me a couple of weeks before the conference, building on his experience in mining investment. “But to get majors, we also need juniors.”
Small Companies, Big Plans
The sequence of company pitches spanned many of the energy transition options we hear about every day. There were a couple of community solar developers. A battery recycler, and a developer of a new battery system for one of the biggest electric vehicle fleets anywhere—forklifts. A couple of renewable natural gas suppliers claiming carbon-negative products. An asphalt recycler with a deliberate plan to build a North American market.
Most of the projects were in the range of a few megawatts, but with big plans and evident potential to scale up operations.
And several of the pitches cited the federal government’s clean energy investment tax credits as the level of support they needed to push their deals over the finish line. This was not long after analysts at Rystad Energy declared Canada the second-most favourable jurisdiction for clean energy investment, second only to the United States with its US$370-billion Inflation Reduction Act.
That funding is no different from the taxpayer support that multiple other sectors—certainly including the fossil fuel industry—have been able to count on for decades. Except that, this time, it’s directed toward investments that are meant to help stop climate change in its tracks.
‘Disney World for Energy Efficiency Nerds’
The Retrofit Canada conference in Montreal grappled with a different set of issues. Compared to similar events in years and decades past, the sense of momentum and possibility in the room was enough to blow the roof off the building.
“This is kind of like Disney World for energy efficiency nerds,” Efficiency Canada Executive Director Corey Diamond declared in opening remarks that pointed to two intertwined strands: public sector policy and programs, and the “action and work and excitement happening in the private sector.”
Much of the conference focused on getting from here to there: The training required for the legions of skilled trades that will get the work done. The deliberate steps that will keep low-income households, Indigenous communities, and minority and Indigenous contractors at the centre of the picture. And the deliberate but still timely dealmaking that will be needed to reconcile the interests of building occupants, owners, retrofitters, utilities, financiers, governments, and more.
But participants were still up against a daunting challenge: how to carry out deep retrofits across the 80% of today’s building stock that will still be with us in 2050, in time to deliver on an ambitious set of climate targets. With so much to do in so little time, as one conference participant pointed out, we’ll know we’re catching up when the triumphant PowerPoint photos of very good, one-off retrofits show up alongside data tables summarizing thousands of projects.
Getting More Done, Faster
And that’s the most important point of all, as we continue this urgent and complicated journey from the what to the how of climate action. A retraining program for the fossil fuel work force is just as fundamentally important as the next pipeline protest or fossil fuel non-proliferation resolution, but a lot harder to frame as headline news (although we do keep trying). Navigating the fine details of project finance and small cap investment isn’t for the faint of heart.
But that level of grinding, heroic, day-to-day slogging is a big part of what it will take to make climate pollution a thing of the past, once and for all. And as practitioners across the clean energy spectrum dig down into the details and get buried in the minutiae of successful project management, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we asked for this. It’s (at least one part of) what success looks like, it’s taken far too long to get here, and this is the time to embrace the opportunity, while keeping up the pressure for more, faster, and better.
To get on with this work, we needn’t and shouldn’t let go of the reality that we could have hit this stage so much sooner if past governments and some present-day ones had been willing to step up. I still carry around the belief or happy delusion that if the previous wave of renewable energy and energy efficiency work had been left to continue and flourish, we never would have had to use language like “climate”, “change”, or “crisis” in any sentence that didn’t also include the word “averted”.
Instead, beginning in the early 1980s, governments wasted decades we didn’t have on false solutions that can’t deliver, touted by fossil fuel interests that deliberately chose not to tell the rest of us what they already knew about a looming climate emergency.
Now too many people in too many parts of the world will be breathing in far too much wood smoke for the foreseeable future.
But for better and for worse, that’s where we are today. As a colleague said a few days ago, quoting an ancient proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is right now.”
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our newest weekly e-digest, Cities & Communities.
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Diagram of the Week
B.C. Burning Through Its Wildfire Budget Well Before the Season Even Peaks (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
4,000 Square Kilometres of Land Has Burned Near Sambaa K'e. What Does That Mean for Fish? (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
Europe’s Luxury Cruise Ships Emit as Much Toxic Sulphur as 1bn Cars (Transport & Environment)
The Antidote for Modern Slavery in the Renewables Supply Chain (Energy Monitor)