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What is hindering Canada’s ability to achieve net-zero? It might not be what you think.

After over 30 years of trying to address climate change through target setting, it seems we are finally on the cusp of significant and effective action.

Canada’s federal government has married climate action and economic recovery with its Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy plan that will also establish the building blocks to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Many of the provinces are following suit with significant investments planned for renewables, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and clean energy. 

But despite the significant amount of investment that is about to be pumped into our economy and the emphasis on climate action, we are still underestimating the scale of the challenge and largely ignoring several critical issues. So what are these bottlenecks that are standing in our way? They are institutional innovation, political will, capacity and people.

net zero

Intangible, hard to measure, near invisible and wickedly complex, these bottlenecks require systems thinking and cannot be solved with investment in technical solutions alone. Our current society – particularly the energy systems that serve us and the institutions that oversee them – is structured in a way that focuses centrally on reliability and low costs – essential principals, yet ones that leave little flexibility for a clean, sustainable future.

If we are to achieve a truly sustainable economy that is net-zero emission we must look equally at changing the structures embedded in our society and institutions. This means taking on new ways of thinking about energy – the governance structures, business models, policies, legislation and regulatory structures we rely on – to enable innovation at the local level. 

This is a concept promoted by Smart Energy Communities, which create new structures by taking a local lens to energy systems, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Taking this local lens is highly collaborative and accounts for people, land and unique situations to create innovative solutions and new energy opportunities.

A local approach created new governance structures such as Our Energy Guelph – an independent intermediary tasked in meeting the objectives of the City’s Community Energy Plan through cross-sectoral initiatives. New business models have also enabled emerging innovators to participate in the energy system, and brought VanCity’s model for delivering geothermal energy through a local utility to Kelowna BC. Moving forward, stronger inter-governmental collaboration with indigenous communities, and more nimble regulatory systems that – in addition to ensuring safety, affordability, and reliability – facilitate innovation and balance demands for more inclusion, are necessary areas to address. 

Net-zero also means it is no longer acceptable for marginalized individuals to be left behind. All of our policies and actions must ensure that the playing field is level for disadvantaged Canadians. This might mean that funding for incentives like deep energy retrofits or electric vehicle subsidies prioritize low-income Canadians and those that live in or are part of marginalized communities, as opposed to being equally available for everyone. 

This undertaking is impossible without coalitions of public support and the political will to address systemic change. Establishing capacity across all of society to achieve the outcomes we seek is also required. Without the skills, knowledge, tools, equipment, and people required to achieve net-zero, we will not get there and we are very far from having those capacities in place.

And that last one, people, is perhaps the most critical of all. Canadians need to be brought along in the process. We need to understand that this is not a standard pollution management issue that a select few can solve. We need to understand the costs, the impacts and the opportunities that net-zero offers. And we need to be empowered to make useful contributions to the overall objectives and see ourselves as part of both the problem and the solution. 

The invisibles of net-zero – institutional innovation, political will, capacity and people – are the accelerants that will help or hinder our ability to meet our economic and climate change objectives. They must have equal attention to the tangible, measurable, and visible technologies that governments are currently focusing on if success is to be truly on the table.

Tonja Leach

Tonja Leach

Executive Director, QUEST

Tonja Leach became Executive Director of QUEST on October 18, 2019, having been with QUEST since its inception in 2007 in a number of roles of increasing responsibility. She has been instrumental in establishing QUEST’s extensive national network and ensuring that QUEST is known as the Canadian organization that accelerates the adoption of efficient and integrated community-scale energy systems in Canada by informing, inspiring, and connecting decision-makers.

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