But getting a green industrial policy right is no simple task
Canada has legislated a commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Getting there is essential for tackling climate-related extreme weather events like floods, storms and wildfires that already cost us hundreds of lives and billions of dollars every year. But reaching net-zero will require a total restructuring of the economy away from coal, oil and natural gas.
Thousands of workers and dozens of communities depend on those industries. So what Canadians need to know is: if not fossil fuels, then what?
It’s a question our political leaders have been reluctant to address because the answer lies in industrial policy – government interventions in the economy to shift resources away from traditional, declining sectors toward strategic, future-oriented industries.
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Ironically, one of the most successful examples of industrial policy in Canada’s history is the development of the oil sands. When the private sector was reluctant to invest in unconventional oil extraction, provincial and federal governments stepped in with public money to drive innovation and commercialize the sector.
Today, Canada needs an ambitious green industrial policy to diversify the economy away from fossil fuels and toward clean alternatives.
There are many sustainable sectors where Canada has huge economic potential – from zero-emission vehicles to carbon-neutral buildings to regenerative agriculture – but where private businesses have failed to invest on the necessary scale.
That’s where governments need to step in. Public coordination backed by public money can drive innovation in strategic green industries precisely in the regions that most need economic alternatives – something the market will never do on its own.
Getting a green industrial policy right is no simple task. It will take deep engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, renewed capacity in the public sector, big bets on unproven technologies, and public funding on a massive scale. We’ll need tens of billions of dollars in new spending every year to offset losses from the fossil fuel industry.
But if we do it right, Canadian governments can blaze a trail for good, green industrial jobs in every part of the country. Imagine Alberta as the global leader in high-tech, low-carbon agriculture. Or Newfoundland as a hub for the Atlantic hydrogen trade. We can get there, but only if governments take the lead.
Fortunately, the first and most important thing Canadian governments must do is completely free: establish a clear vision for the future.
When the federal government commits to tackling fossil fuel production one day and then approves new fossil fuel infrastructure the next day, it is communicating a muddled vision for the economy. It’s a vision that feeds anxiety among workers, communities and businesses struggling to make decisions based on an unclear economic future.
That muddled vision also gets politicized by provincial governments which have no plan for a green economy of their own. They would rather ride the oil and gas rollercoaster into the ground than prepare for a world moving on from fossil fuels.
It’s time Canadian governments set the record straight: by 2050, Canada will not produce or consume fossil fuels. There is no other option.
It’s a simple acknowledgment but crucial for shaping everything from corporate investing strategies to young people’s career choices to policy making at every level.
Once our governments are honest about where we need to go, we can begin the difficult but necessary work of developing a national green industrial strategy – one that will build a better future for our planet and for our economy.
Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
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