Is Canada’s economic future free of fossil fuels?

Climate and energy policies are now one and the
same. To take the Paris Agreement seriously, Canada must accept that the oil
sands can no longer be key to its economy.   

By: /
13 January, 2016
Oil at the first phase of separation from the sand at the Suncor tar sands processing plant in Alberta. Sept. 17, 2014. REUTERS/Todd Korol
By: Simon Dalby

Professor of Environmental Studies

In December, delegates to the Paris Climate conference finally agreed that humanity must plan to move beyond a fossil fuel powered economy. The agreement also makes clear that individual states all have to make a contribution to this effort, one that will require successively more stringent constraints on greenhouse gas emissions.

These measures are now nearly universally accepted as necessary to prevent drastic disruptions of the earth’s climate, which in turn would inevitably cause great human insecurity. In some cases climate already presents a clear and imminent existential threat to nation states, only most obviously to the low-lying small island states faced with inundation as sea levels rise.

The crucial point about the Paris agreement is that states will now have to change their policy priorities and focus on building post-fossil fuel economies. Failure to do so may present states with further and rather different security challenges if they are seriously out of line with international efforts. These security issues must also be anticipated in planning for a fossil-fuel-free future. 

So what are the likely impacts of climate change on Canada? What about Canadian security and defence in these changing times? The right answer to these questions is: “Well, it all depends!” What it depends on is whether Canada quickly moves to do sensible things both at home and abroad or, failing to seize the moment, misses the opportunity to grapple effectively with climate change. As Nicolas Stern, the British economist who wrote the crucial analysis of the economics of climate a decade ago has made clear repeatedly, its much easier to deal with climate now rather than later.

If the opportunities are missed in the next while then the likely impacts are going to be different and probably much worse for Canadians than if sensible policies are pursued soon. Being prepared for unavoidable storms, disruptions and humanitarian emergencies is part of the story, but thinking ahead, planning, building and crucially, investing appropriately for a changing world, is much the most important priority for a secure Canada in future. 

Getting climate policy right

In linking security and climate, the first point is to emphasize that fears of wars over scarce resources have been exaggerated. Yes, climate changes are undoubtedly a stressor on many societies. But how those societies respond is much more important for the next few decades at least, than the climate change itself. This is certainly the lesson from Syria in recent years. Institutional innovations, and plans to cope with emergencies before they happen are key to averting humanitarian disasters. Preventing people becoming vulnerable in the first place is key.

“Canadians need to take seriously how others will view us if we fail to grapple with our extensive fossil fuel production.”

The second point that matters in the climate security discussion is that while there are serious concerns about the need to move populations out of the way of sea level rises in many places, massive local influxes of refugees driven by climate disasters are a fairly distant prospect for Canada even if some Mexicans and Americans do look north to escape droughts and other weather events. Which, given the difficulty Canada is having in early 2016 processing a relatively small number of refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, is probably a good thing. Canadians will undoubtedly be called on to help with future more distant disruptions. The most basic mode of adaptation to environmental change for all species is to move, something modern government, based on fixed territorial states, is now making much more difficult for those who are most pressed to adapt to new climate circumstances.

The third point, and one that has become increasingly clear in the last few years is that policies for dealing with climate change may, if they are not carefully considered, cause many of the problems to which they are supposedly a response. Land grabbing and biofuel plantations in Asia and Africa in particular leading to fluctuating land prices and disruptions to international food trade will make adaptations more difficult for vulnerable populations; counter-insurgency interventions by outside powers that ignore these things may only make matters worse. This point is key to intelligent planning for the future, and one that has to be borne in mind as both adaptation and mitigation strategies are discussed in coming years. And discussed they need to be.

Fourth and perhaps most important in terms of thinking about climate and security is to focus on long-term strategy. Sun Zsu’s old adage about this, roughly translated, suggests: “If you have to fight your strategy has failed.” If we have to deal with climate in old-fashioned emergency mobilizations, or war like operations in future, it will be because of a failure of climate strategy. And strategy usually fails when the context of conflict is misread or an antagonist’s intentions are misconstrued. Ethnocentric blind spots and the failure to consider the consequences of one’s own actions compound difficulties.

Canadians need to take very seriously how others will view us if we fail to grapple with both the extensive fossil fuel production within our borders, and our, relative to other states, very profligate use of energy.

oil sands
A scarecrow keep birds away from oil ponds at Suncor operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Sept. 17, 2014. REUTERS/Todd Korol

Retooling Canada’s economy

We are going to have to face up to the simple fact that in the long run we can’t go on digging up bitumen in Alberta and burning it as a key mode of our economic activity. Emissions from the oil and gas sector are the major short-term problem for any Canadian climate strategy; that sector of the economy continues to grow, and with it the emissions that make Canadian commitments to any international agreement increasingly difficult. This is why environmentalists get so incensed about plans to further exploit the oil sands and, for want of any better way to tackle this issue, mobilize against various pipeline proposals.

Money invested in oil sands exploitation is cash not spent on solar or wind energy, or buildings that don’t have furnaces, or transit infrastructure that reduces fuel use. Financing the right things rather than old technologies that perpetuate carbon emissions long into the future is key to a sensible climate strategy. It drives the growing movement for divestment from fossil fuels. While coal company stocks and fossil fuel funds have been hit by the collapse in prices recently, even so they haven’t been doing well relative to other parts of the economy, a signal of sorts about the future. Export subsidies for coal are also disappearing at last too.

Energy strategy and climate strategy are one and the same thing, not separate policy domains as they are so frequently still understood to be. Climate change isn’t an old fashioned environmental policy where all that mattered was cleaning up noxious stuff that flowed out of effluent pipes or up chimneys. That kind of pollution control, the ‘ecological modernization’ strategy won’t work with fossil fuels, however much it is tried to make oil sands look “green.” We simply have to stop burning fossil fuels. Producing them more efficiently may reduce some of the local environmental impacts, but it doesn’t address the core climate issue.

Even if high technology carbon scrubbers and carbon capture and storage systems come on stream in coming decades they are going to be too late to grapple with the task of reducing emissions quickly. Yes those technologies will be needed globally in the longer term if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are to be reduced. They will be essential if the Paris Agreement aspiration of limiting average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is to be reached. But this isn’t an alternative to reducing and then eliminating fossil fuel production. Getting that point clearly in focus is key to changing the Canadian economy so that we can start to make realistic commitments to reduce our emissions.

With those strategies in place then Canada will have some credibility in the international arena. Then our diplomatic services, our traditional role as a broker of useful global deals, will be useful once again. There is no avoiding the necessity of getting serious about retooling our economy and moving in sensible directions towards new energy systems now rather than being forced to do so later in increasingly difficult circumstances. 

All hands on deck

Neither does it makes sense to argue that Canada is but a small part of the climate problem, and hence waiting until others figure out how to fix it is appropriate. On a per-capita basis, the only measure that really matters in global climate discussions, Canada is near the top of the list of greenhouse gas emitters.

Blaming China is a common sport, but they too have realized that they have to deal with their coal consumption problem in particular. They are now quickly moving ahead with a solar and wind based energy system. Following the Paris Agreement sooner or later robust measures to deal with climate will be forthcoming, and it is sensible to move ahead aggressively to speed this up. Doing so allows us to manage the transition to a post-carbon fuel society more easily and do so mostly within our control rather than scrambling later to adapt when we are forced to do so. 

“Canada’s priority is to make changes now so that we gradually wean ourselves off fossil fuels.”

Recognizing that this is the new landscape of international politics is the essential step for orientating Canadian policy towards a rapidly changing future rather than clinging counter productively to our past as an oil producer. Climate change threatens numerous things. Failure to take appropriate policies to change direction in time will be a major mistake. Canada’s security priority is about making necessary changes now so that we gradually wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

Most importantly, Canadians need to think long and hard about how to make a climate friendly economy by the middle of the century. The big question that needs to be asked is: “How do we get to a carbon neutral Canada by 2050 while building a decent society that will democratically support policies to do so?”

For this long-term perspective Canada needs a future oriented think-tank and an active and growing network of forward-looking scholars and researchers. We need a flexible institution that looks to a carbon neutral economy by 2050 and thinks hard about how to get there. Not an agency that generates blueprints and issues centralized directives, but rather a brains trust of engineers, scholarly researchers and social entrepreneurs dedicated to harnessing social as well as technical innovations to build a sustainable society. Such a “Canada 2050” institution is precisely the kind of infrastructure investment this country needs most if it is serious about building a post-fossil fuel society for coming generations.

It would probably be sensible to organize Canada 2050 outside Ottawa away from the short-term focus of the policy community there, but clearly there is a role for security agencies with long-term planning mandates, operating in open access mode please note, to participate in thinking about the long term future of this country. Perhaps we could locate the headquarters of Canada 2050 in the emerging heartland of Canadian innovation in Waterloo, Ont. (where this writer is also based)? After all, the new minister for small business now represents Waterloo, and this is a start-up business that needs to spin off lots of innovations if Canada is to become a climate-friendly society rather than remain part of the increasingly urgent climate change problem.

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